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The Library of Nith
‘At worst, a library is nothing more
than a mausoleum for the intellect.’
Some seven days’ journey east northeast from Mirrindale lay a region of the Elven Kingdom that was greatly varied; it was rich in hardwood forests and orchards, vineyards and wide fields of berries, currents, small mixed farms, low-laying meadows and marshlands teeming with wildlife, and many lakes abundant with fish and waterfowl. In the southwest corner of this region lay Nith, fairest of all Elven cities.
The architecture therein was of a classic mode, executed overall in clean straight lines and graceful arches of surpassing perfection and beauty, and built of white stone. Her elegant streets and courtyards were flagged with coloured stone and tile mosaics, and both were lined with tall oaks, elms, maples, poplars, flowering ornamental plum, and dwarf-apple trees.
The city was surrounded by a high stone wall, but like the city’s buildings its purpose was more ornamental than practical. To say the city was otherwise poorly defended would have been an understatement. To make matters even more precarious in the general scheme of things, Prince Cir had seen fit to withdraw most of the city’s soldiers, his soldiers, on some alleged errand.
The occupants of Nith knew little about the events in Mirrindale and the West of the Elf Kingdom. The truth be known, they weren’t overly concerned about events to the South and Northeast, either. For one thing, they were of different stock, these Northern Elves, or M’or-Agi, as they referred to themselves. As far as they were concerned, their remote cousin’s troubles where the King and Prince Cir were concerned were just that- remote.
Tales of atrocity and treason, the King’s madness and the plight of their Faerie kindred (who had departed so long ago that many doubted the truth of their existence), of impending war and their own possible involvement (which to their minds was highly unlikely), meant little or nothing to the citizens of Nith. Nith was, after all, a city of scholars and artisans, of experts in the culinary crafts and connoisseurs; the Elves therein were a people of art, knowledge, culture and craft. War was not made on such people, and such people had no business meddling in politics.
In their own minds, at least, they were above such things.
At the center of the city there was a wide courtyard, and to one end of this was an odd-looking building, fronted by great marble pillars and centered by a circular rotunda; though ornate, this building otherwise resembled a small fortress. Two guards, an older officer and his younger Adjutant, stood on either side of the only entrance; a single door, the surrounding stonework of which looked as though a wide and open entrance had once graced the front of the building, and had been filled in with closely fitted and mortared stone.
An Elf man, attired as a Loremaster’s Adjunct, strode purposefully towards the Library entrance, the direction from which he had come entirely in keeping with his apparent station; behind him lay the Street of Scribes; a term in which more was implicit than met the eye. Though there were many apartments containing cells in which Novices, Adjuncts, and students were quartered, there were only a few apartments on that street in which Loremaster’s and their families actually lived; there were as many scholars, teachers, and law practitioners and their families living in these same buildings.
The true reason the Street of Scribes was so named was because of a number of shops which were at, below, and just above street level, where the tools of Scribing were manufactured, imported, exported, and sold.
Scribing, then, was for the most part a business, supplying the labour and tools of commerce. Funding for the purely academic side of the trade came entirely from the state in the form of taxes. The academic aspect of Scribing was therefore a sideline on which, except for state funding, as little time, money, and resources were expended as possible.
As the man approached within hailing distance, the Adjutant muttered quietly, so as not to be overheard, ‘That is no Adjunct! He’s too old, for one thing. And look at his bearing; the way he walks-’
‘I know him,’ the other replied. ‘He’s been vouched for.’
‘Vouched for or not, he is no Adjunct-’
‘My superior,’ the other said pointedly, ‘has said that he is to be freely admitted; that no questions are to be asked. As your superior, I am telling you to take no overt notice! Is that clear?’
Carefully hiding his anger and suspicion, the Adjutant replied, ‘Perfectly.’ But he watched as the false Adjunct ascended the stairs with the poised equilibrium of an athlete, or a very well-trained soldier, nodded curtly to his superior who opened the door for the fellow, and closed it. Both of them, he noticed unobtrusively, his superior and the Adjunct, carefully took note that none in the square marked this occurrence with the least curiosity, or more importantly, with carefully concealed intent; something, to the best of his knowledge, only well-trained soldiers did, and then only under very particular circumstances.
The young Adjutant was long in determining what he should do about his observations.
The false Adjunct was not so intent on his assignment that he had missed the young Adjutant’s attitude, and he made a mental note to have the fellow dealt with, forthwith. This meant that the fellow would be transferred, his duties increased. If he tried to pursue his scant knowledge, he would therefore be quickly caught, and just as quickly eliminated.
The matter was dealt with and resolved in his mind almost instantly; casually, as a sideline that barely impinged upon his thoughts.
His first destination was a convoluted room, central to the first floor of the building, which could be reached from several directions. It served as cloakroom, common-room, scullery, and reading room, for the Novices, Adjuncts, and students.
The false Adjunct had other concerns, however. This room possessed far more entrances and exits than all but a few would have dreamed possible. The Library of Nith, he knew, was a labyrinthine maze of secrets.
The same few who possessed such knowledge of the Library, knew that this had been part of the purpose of its “refurbishing.” Ironically, those originally responsible for the building’s present design had done so in the desire to thwart any possible intrigue from developing. Their spying, however, became a self-fulfilling prophesy: they themselves became the spies hatching the plots, scheming in secret.
This was of no concern to the false Adjunct, however. In a precise, businesslike manner, he wended his way through to an area of the least used alcoves, stepped behind a curtain, removed a key from his raiment, unlocked and opened a panel which slid effortlessly and silently aside, and to all intents and purposes, vanished from the Library proper; that is, the Library proper in terms of common knowledge.
As the false Adjunct made his way through the dimly lighted corridors, his senses were heightened by his uneasy suspicion, based upon rumour he gave some credence to, that there was not simply one set of hidden passageways, but several. This suspicion was based upon a chance observation: some years ago he had stumbled upon of one of his colleagues, who was and remained oblivious to his presence while within the hidden passageways, so intent was he on watching someone through one of the fine lattice works which served both to admit light, and to allow one within the corridors to watch doings within the building without being seen.
His intent had simply been to not interrupt his colleague at once (or worse, startle him into making some exclamation of surprise, or worse), but to wait for the fellow to finish before making his presence known.
Before he could do so, however, his colleague suddenly broke off his observation, turned fully about, withershins, so that his eyes never came across his observer’s position, produced a key from his raiment, opened a concealed panel which had hitherto been at his back, stepped through and pulled it closed once more.
Concealing his faint surprise (which even at the time struck him as superfluous as there was no one present to observe his reaction), the false Adjunct then realized that he had not been entrusted with the whole truth of the Library of Nith. To his mind this was perfectly natural, and bespoke of things hierarchical (at least, this is how he viewed the world and his place in it): his was a lesser station, therefore his superiors were possessed of greater knowledge and had greater access to the inner workings and complexities of the Library.
But questions remained: how many levels of superiors were there, and therefore, how many sets of hidden passageways? And if he was at the bottom of the hierarchy, who was at the top? Or worse, were there two or more sets of hierarchies vying with each other? Could the King, Prince Cir, and certain of the caste of Loremasters, be working independently of each other? Or did they work in concert on the surface, yet maintain separate agendas?
This train of thought kept his mind occupied until he finally reached his goal; a passageway built into the outer wall of the rotunda, with an inward-facing latticework that allowed him to see and hear the object of his mission.
He noted with relief that his stool remained where he had left it. If sitting motionless and staring and listening through the latticework for endless hours made for tired, aching muscles, having to stand was far worse. Ah, for a return to the open rigours of battle! Settling himself, he noted abstractly that the walls of the corridors were well-designed, having been built of stone, lined with wood, wall, floor, and ceiling, and overall covered with jute and horsehair-stuffed burlap which had been tacked in place. In this manner, even the worst mishap would produce minimal noise.
Sitting down upon the stool, he pressed his face to the pinhole-perforated latticework; and immediately had to stifle a sneeze; and a laugh, having heard many of the ghost-stories which circulated, especially amongst the Novices and Scribes. So many of the ghosts were said to have sneezed, that he was certain, in his own mind, of the source of these tales.
The urge to sneeze finally subdued, he pressed his cheek to the latticework once more, and peered through. His quarry, as usual, was seated at his scribing desk. He heard something, shifted his gaze, and smiled. There were two! Hopefully this would mean conversation, and for himself, a break from the usual tedium. This came as a partial relief. His masters in Valerian and Mirrindale were becoming impatient for news. He smiled at that thought. There were those who believed that serving two masters could only end in disaster.
He knew better. In days when no master could be trusted not to find his servants expendable, said servants forged multiple alliances, hinting at this arrangement to their masters in the bargain. For the servant, this had not one benefit, but several. Firstly, one gained more and better information if one’s master knew how well informed his tool, his servant, was. In a game where information was the primary weapon, one supplied the best. Yet both master and servant well knew that great care had to be taken, for the weapon of information, like a two-edged sword, cut not only both ways, but in several ways. For example, the information could be false or misleading. Or it could contain an element of truth, and be useless but leading to dangerous or ill-timed action. All of this led to a greater degree of safety for the servant, as, being a valuable commodity, his master would attempt to ferret out any threat to his tools, his servants, his eyes and ears. One did not part willingly with such a sensory organ, except as a last resort.
Just as important were the tools of deception, misinformation, concealment, appearances, disguises- the false Adjunct admonished himself for allowing his thoughts to wander, and turned his attention back to the matter at hand. Peering into the rotunda proper once more, he could see clearly, sitting next to his quarry, a young Elf, the Scribe’s son. He knew that the son’s name was Mraan, and that he was aged sixteen years. The boy waited patiently as his father, Haloch, laboured on what he undoubtedly thought of as the most important work of his life. Haloch was forging a new copy of The Book of Runes, or Öht Nürn Aldhii, as it was called in an archaic tongue known only to scholars. The old copy lay open, bulging with leaves which had been stuffed between its cracked and brittle pages.
Based on what the false Adjunct knew concerning the matter, the original Öht Nürn Aldhii had become nearly impossible to follow. Fading, difficult to read passages, references, cross-references, and later additions, were scribbled in every margin, or were written upon scraps of parchment, skin and cloth, and inserted between the pages. Much of the text in the Book’s earlier chapters was written in the various scripts of generations of past Loremasters, many being in ancient tongues and dialects now long out of use.
The result of this haphazard compilation was that generations of lore and related knowledge had been added without being properly integrated into the existing text, until recently, as none save Haloch possessed either the skill or the confidence to dare such a task.
The false Adjunct smiled to himself at this. During his younger days as an apprentice, many of his teachers had deemed Haloch to be insufferably irreverent. Yet it appeared later that this seeming irreverence served an important use; veneration of the original document had prevented generations of scholars from attempting what Haloch was able to accomplish with relative ease, without fear, awe, or doubt of his own abilities or worth to blind him to the task. To him it was, after all, nothing more than just another book of Lore. It wasn’t arrogance, cockiness, or even a misguided sense of self-confidence that caused Haloch to view such artifacts with what many misunderstood as being disdain. In truth, the real reason was so simple that it was easily overlooked.
What a complete and utter fool, the false Adjunct thought to himself. To Haloch’s limited mind, magic as text was quite harmless. True, the use of magic, especially very potent magic, could be dangerous; even perilous. But in Haloch’s mind, the old Scribe had nothing to fear. He was, in his own words and in his own mind a copyist. Nothing more. As such, the book presented him with no direct peril, as a sword presents no immediate danger to the smith who forges it. In the way of a simpleton, he had neither pretensions to, nor desire for, invoking anything. Instead, he slaved away his ascetic life at an occupation that provided a mean, almost a subsistence existence, for himself and what remained of his family.
The false Adjunct took a moment to stretch his cramping back and shoulders, before resuming. In a way, he almost envied the old Scribe his simplistic vision of himself and the world in which he lived. At least he possesses a degree of humility than do his peers, the false Adjunct thought to himself. The Scholastic community, that pack of withered, dithering dotards, had been outraged at Haloch’s perceived incursion into an area they thought rightfully, solely their own; but they remained silent about it for the most part, fearing retribution at the hands of the King. Many of them rationalized that since Haloch was only organising the text, and had no interest in putting it to use, that nothing bad could come of his scribblings. And as the young scribe set himself to the task, and as time passed, most of the dissenters gradually turned their attention to other things.
But as the years and the decades passed, many now waited impatiently for Haloch to finish the text. The irony of this, as the date of completion drew near, was the apparent lack of interest from either the King or his Loremasters. They were conspicuously absent, sequestering themselves in the King’s city of Valerian, far to the Northeast. It was as though they had withdrawn themselves to a safe distance, waiting for something to happen.
As the day of completion drew near, several of the older scholars began to grow concerned, fearing that the King meant to betray them in some manner. This fear was not unfounded, for some of them had first-hand knowledge of the King’s private obsession with eternal life: namely his own. They began to wonder and worry if the King’s absence and the Book’s completion were somehow linked . . .
Small-minded fools! They think the world revolves around themselves and their works! The false Adjunct had to suppress a tremor of anger. What the Scholastic community did not know, of course, what had been carefully kept from them from the beginning, was the fact that Haloch had been told to finish the final illustration, which was incomplete. The old Scribe was secretly (so he thought) looking forward to this final piece of work, for in his entire life, he had never been directly involved in the creative process. He saw this as a fitting way to retire, capping the completion of his life’s work. That the groundwork for the illustration was clearly laid out disturbed him not at all. When he was done, his copy would reflect the outcome of the original, had its author seen fit to complete it himself. Then, in his own mind at least, he could pack up his Scribing tools for the last time, and spend his remaining days in retirement collecting his pension.
The false Adjunct couldn’t help but feel a little pity towards the old Scribe, but it was tempered with an equal disdain. Haloch, of course, thought that his son would follow in his footsteps. Such men should not be afforded the privilege of having children, he thought to himself. For one thing, Mraan is not cut from the same cloth- he has the makings of a soldier. The boy and his future are being wasted, and we have few enough with his potential.
Haloch had, the false Adjunct knew, been married only because of Fate. That same Fate had later taken his wife, a beautiful woman less than half his age, away again. She had practically been given to him (he, then a middle-aged bachelor with no thought of ever marrying), for her own protection. Her father had thought to protect her in this way from the predacious and unwanted attentions of Prince Cir.
The false Adjunct ceased his reverie as activity caught his eye, and his attention. The boy, Mraan, handed Haloch the quill his father had planned to use next without a word, making the old Elf smile. The Master Scribe then began the work of outlining the final illustration.
The false Adjunct noticed that as Haloch studied the original, the old Scribe had to suppress a tremor of misgiving, and knew the reason for this reaction. Why this ominous portrayal had been set down at all, and why its creator had seen fit to place it last, had given many, Haloch included, cause to wonder. The basic picture was of a classic mode; sharply defined and elegant stone architecture, scantily clad people in a variety of poses depicting lofty preoccupation . . . that much was understandable. But the rest of the illustration was evil and chaos. The people depicted bore a strained aspect, as though deep in concentration despite great physical pain. Dark, ghostly, evil shadows were everywhere; despite the bright illumination of the figures depicted, the sky was incongruously troubled; a portent of a great evil. The people . . . ah, there was a riddle! They continued playing out their roles as the evil things which surrounded them gnawed at their flesh, tore down and defiled the classic beauty around them.
Is it a warning? Or is it prophecy? the false Adjunct had heard this endless debate between Scholars concerning the final illustration many times. He found that his senses were heightened. He, too, wondered what would happen when the illustration was finished. And he reflected that, besides the old Scribe and his son, there would be none closer to witness the event. He was not reassured when Haloch considered the illustration and sighed, as if to say, It is an illustration, albeit an evil one. Nothing more.
Yet the false Adjunct had to smile at what he was seeing, and shook his head. To others, the Öht Nürn Adhii was an object of such eminence, some would even say “worship,” that the mere sight of this artifact, with pages that glowed like Moonstone, with Runes like lines of eldritch fire, with illustrations that seemed alive (because they appeared as though one’s hand could pass through the very page they were set upon, into the worlds contained therein, some possessing a terrible beauty, and others seemingly too great or terrible to be borne); the mere sight of this artifact now daunted those who had forgotten its more humble origins.
As was usual for Haloch, his mind wandered to other things as he worked more or less mechanically. And as he did so, he began to talk rhetorically about what had once been a simple, gentle lore; that of tree and leaf, of wind and water, of seasons and of weather, of all Nature’s many varied faces. He said that none could speak of its origins, for they were rooted in the dim past, long before the written word.
The false Adjunct watched Mraan with empathy. The boy, as usual, became bored and distracted as his father worked. He moved silently away from the scribing desk, which was set in the rotunda at the front and center of the building, and took a long look outside. The view from the rotunda’s windows was generally toward the southeast. Three storeys below was a circular cobblestone courtyard, upon which fronted the Library and several other buildings of lesser stature. Though the false Adjunct couldn’t see through Mraan’s eyes, he imagined the usual scene playing itself out, of young children playing in the courtyard, and in the waters of a tiered fountain at its center. The fountain was surrounded by ancient elm trees, and around the bole of each tree was a stone bench; most of these would have people sitting on them. Mraan watched until he grew tired of watching, and turned his attention back to his father’s work. His father, however, had fallen silent, paused, and seemed to be deep in thought.
‘What are you thinking about father?’
The false adjunct felt a grudging respect for the boy. He knew that Mraan was well aware that when his father was so lost in thought, that, chances were, he was preoccupied with something important . . . which meant, therefore, that it was something his son would do well to learn. Haloch, well attuned to his only son, smiled at this, knowing his son’s mind, and that his son was beginning to know his own mind, as well as his father’s, despite his sixteen years. Most boys his age lacked both patience with and interest in things which did not concern their peers.
It’s odd, but I’ve come to be able to read these two so well; their moods, their subtleties, their body language; even their silences and lack of expression, the false Adjunct reflected as he listened to Haloch’s reply.
‘Oh, I was reflecting on a number of things, as I am wont to do when my attention should be on my work,’ Haloch said with a knowing smile. ‘Sometimes I have to wonder at the latent Power I’ve been entrusted with, Power so potent that the Book has remained unused for generations.’
‘Yes, but I thought that was supposed to change, once you’ve finished the thing,’ Mraan said.
Haloch huffed. ‘I am no Loremaster, nor am I much of a Scholar, but I do not see that re-writing and updating this work will avail those who believe that progress will be attained thereafter. But they wanted it done. The King, no less (at least from what I understand), wanted this task accomplished. And so, long have I and my family been provided for, and long have I been preoccupied with a work that I enjoy very much.’
Mraan’s scrutiny of his father narrowed at that. He found as he grew older that he was growing bold enough to challenge his father on certain topics, but never before on something family related. Fighting the uncomfortable feeling that he was crossing some sort of invisible line, he said ‘I remember how often you used to say that you used to tell mother how much you hated scribing.’
Haloch was as silent as stone for so long that Mraan felt compelled to apologize for injuring his father’s feelings. But before he could speak, Haloch said in a hollow voice, ‘That may have been true, once.’
Cursing himself for intruding on his father’s private pain, Mraan tried changing the subject.
‘What else were you reflecting upon,’ Mraan asked, his face a study in self-admonishment.
‘If you must know, I was reflecting on the origins of the Written Word, and on some of its gravest consequences,’ Haloch replied, an eager note in his voice, as though he was glad for the mental distraction.
Though his father began speaking almost too quickly, Mraan listened to him with studied patience, sensing that Haloch needed to talk, more than he needed to communicate. He was telling Mraan nothing the boy didn’t already know: it was more like a vain attempt to fend off his own personal demons.
The false Adjunct well knew that Haloch was doing his best to avoid old and bitter pain; the circumstances surrounding his wife’s death, when Mraan was still small. The boy would have been too young to remember her, but doubtless, the details were still fresh in the old Scribe’s mind.
She had been the daughter of a neighbour, a soldier. The two families had known each other for generations, had played together as children and grown up.
Haloch’s family, in his youth, had, like his neighbours, come from a long line of soldiers; his older brothers had all been in the army. And they had all died, in various hazardous campaigns, fighting Goblins. By far the youngest, Haloch was not soldierly material. He was tall, placid, given to daydreaming and wandering . . .
Haloch’s father had noticed this with resigned indifference, and lived through his older sons, until one by one, they had died.
Haloch’s father was never the same again. He began thinking and behaving irrationally, and thinking to preserve his bloodline, had the young Haloch tutored as a Scribe’s Novice. This was clearly mad, as Scribes seldom, if ever, married. The reason was financial. They couldn’t afford to. Realising this, Haloch’s father prevailed upon a friend, one of the aforementioned neighbouring families, to set up an arranged marriage for his son.
The neighbour who had made this promise was spared having to make good on it when Haloch’s parents died suddenly. Haloch had never been told of this, but his mother, thinking to preserve the honour of the family name and what remained of her husband’s dignity, poisoned both her husband and herself one day when Haloch was away.
For years, the neighbour had looked back upon his promise with mixed feelings. For one thing, Haloch would never be a man of means. As well, there were no unattached women in his family close to Haloch’s age.
Yet one day, decades later, this reneging on his promise seemed to come back to haunt him in the form of none other than Prince Cir himself, who began to take an unhealthy and unnatural interest in a girl of fourteen, one of this neighbour’s nieces.
The following year, on her fifteenth birthday, for her own protection she was hastily wed to Haloch.
The false Adjunct sighed at the memory, in spite of himself, for he had known the girl. She was beautiful, intelligent, charming . . . and looked after the middle-aged ascetic with absolute love and devotion. And Haloch, who had never known such tenderness, received her ministrations with a sort of baffled, clumsy affection; he truly loved her, though his love could almost have been considered a mixture of a husband’s love and a father’s affection.
In due time, she bore him a son. And soon after that, she was dead.
The knowledge of her death touched a rarely explored, desolate place in the heart of the false Adjunct.
It had been blamed on a local simpleton, the assistant of a travelling peddlar who from his wagon sharpened implements by means of a huge whetstone, which was turned by the simpleton; such menial tasks were all that he was equipped to perform. He had the mental capacity of a six-year-old, many said, but this was untrue. Even a child was possessed of greater and more nimble wit. As well, even the most average child was possessed of far greater intelligence.
But the simpleton was well-known to the local children, and much loved. He spent all his earnings on sweets, which he gave away to the youngest children; those too young to comprehend that he was not a normal adult in every way.
One day, the peddlar chanced to pass Haloch’s home. Haloch’s wife waved and smiled to the fellow, who sent his simpleminded assistant into the home to collect whatever it was the young woman wanted sharpened.
After several long minutes, perhaps fifteen or twenty, when his assistant didn’t reappear, the peddlar began to worry. He went to the door and knocked, but recieved no reply. Instead of entering (the thought could never have entered his head- a man of his station did not enter the home of his betters unless invited) he stopped a passing soldier on horseback, and sought his assistance in the matter.
Put-out, but aware of his policing duties to the local citizenry, the soldier dismounted with poor grace and went straightaway to the door and knocked. Recieved no reply, he shouted. Then, with a shrug, he tried the door. It was unlocked.
Inside he found the young woman, laying spread-eagled on her bed, naked, her eyes fixed on nothing. She had been raped, then tortured, impaled with a sharpened broom handle, which had been forced between her legs.
The simpleton was sitting in a chair, staring at the young woman, transfixed with uncomprehending horror. He told the soldier that he had seen men in the home, that they had taken the young woman into the room. For a long time, he said, he heard muffled sound, like someone in pain. Then, nothing but silence. He went in, he said, but the men were gone.
The soldier knew that the simpleton was telling the truth. He had witnessed the result of many barbaric atrocities over the years, and knew that more than one person was responsible for the woman’s death. As well, it was clearly beyond the simpleton to concieve either of lying, or of having sexual relations with the woman.
What followed, however, was as unspeakably ugly as the grisly manner of the young woman’s death. The local citizenry, upon hearing what had happened, began to gather. A few shocked and outraged people became a crowd. Somehow the crowd became an ugly mob, spurred on by a few people no one had ever seen before, and who disappeared after the sorry affair was over. At some point, the mob became drunk on revenge, and their rage spilled over like wine gushing forth from a shattered hogshead.
The target for this sudden outpouring of hatred was the unfortunate simpleton. He was the last person to see the young woman alive, they said. No one had seen anyone enter or leave her apartment. Nothing had been seen or heard by anyone, except the simpleton.
The soldier tried to maintain order, located one of his mates and asked for reinforcements which should have come instantly, but mysteriously never materialized, except belatedly, when it was altogether too late.
‘Knives!’ someone shouted. ‘You like to play with sharp things?’
Suddenly, somehow, the simpleton, who was being pushed about by the enraged mob, was on his knees, holding his belly. His intestines were hanging out like grey sausage. Later, the soldier, when he had time to reflect, considered that no one seemed to know who had so skilfully inflicted this wound.
The simpleton began wailing in pain and terror for the peddlar, who tried pushing through the crush of people to help, but he himself was soon being kicked, punched and beaten by the unreasoning mob.
When he finally reached the simpleton, crawling on his hands and knees, battered and bloody, he stared in disbelief at what the mob had done. And for a long time, he had wept. They had cut off the simpleton’s genitalia and member, and stuffed them down his throat, choking him to death.
The false Adjunct remembered all of this in minute detail, for the passing soldier, then a young man, had been himself.
He was suddenly angry with himself; even now, after so many years, that these mental images still held great power over him.
After all, had they not shaped his life? made him what he was today? In his search for justice, and for the truth of the circumstances surrounding the matter, he had been ensnared.
It began with the realization that the woman had been alone when by all accounts her young son should have been at home. It turned out that a neighbour, the wife of a soldier, had without anyone’s knowledge taken the woman’s young son home to visit with her own children. The neighbour had acted strangely when he had questioned her. There was no mistaking the fear in her eyes, fear that encompassed more than what had happened. Often, during his questioning, her eyes would stray to her own children as she thoughtfully considered her answers.
And her answers! They were too pat. It was as though they had been carefully scripted and rehearsed.
Over time, through the asking of discreet and probing questions, he discovered that Prince Cir had once been very much interested in the murdered woman. When that piece of the puzzle fell into place, it made many other things crystal clear; no one had any illusions about the Prince, or that he would not scruple to revenge himself in such a manner.
But the Prince! In his youthful naïveté, he assumed that, while it was beyond his means to bring the Prince to justice, still he could go after those who had done his work for him! He began looking for those soldiers who hadn’t answered to his summons that day, and to his consternation discovered not only that all of them were absent, but that they had been tranferred to the far corners of the Elf Kingdom.
It was in trying to find out who had issued orders for their transfer that he was caught.
To his great fortune (or misfortune, depending on which way you examined the matter), the officer who questioned him let slip that he knew, or thought he knew, for whom he worked in this matter and why. This misapprehension both saved and damned him where bringing the Prince to justice was concerned. Quick thinking on his feet and careful answers at that time may have saved his life, but it meant that he was now working for the superiors of this same officer, over a decade later, and they watched his every move. He’d had no time since to pursue the matter.
He was grateful when the old scribe began speaking to his son once more.
‘As I have often told you,’ Haloch said, ‘our Lore began a long time before the creation of the Written Word. Before Knowledge. It began in the days of Memory and the Rhyming Lists.
‘This early lore was a living thing, as inseparable from us as the air we breath, and adapted and changed as did all other living things; it was known to all, and was more a thing of instinct than of “knowing.”
‘Of all creatures in the known world, we Elves were the most adaptable. The most complex. As a consequence, we became more analytical of our own talents, at first merely out of curiosity; then because a new desire grew upon our ancestors as they realised it was possible to improve upon their lot in life, something that had never occurred to anyone before. Out of this desire came Knowledge, and the realization that Knowledge itself was a fragile thing; a lifetime of reflection and thought was lost whenever the wisest and oldest inevitably died. As well, they discovered that although Knowledge had a way of accumulating, no one individual could retain it all.
‘At a later point, though still in the remote past, we Elves began using simple runes carved in wood and stone to mark boundaries and distances, to point out locations and count livestock, to keep track of trade, and to mark the seasons for planting and harvest.
‘One tribe of Elves became more numerous and powerful than its neighbours. Its chief Elder, growing annoyed by constant bickering over ownership of stray herd animals and disputes over property lines, ordered a census taken of all the runes used in ownership and demarcation. As a result, the first scrolls were created. But there remained a problem; describing what the various runes meant, so that all could understand them.
‘The first solution was to create a table of characters which represented specific meanings, values and attributes. Not only were many characters used freely, with no specific meaning, but a practice existed at that time, whereby the meaning of runes was changeable and secret, as they were used to conceal information. (That practice continues to this very day, but not as a mean-spirited, petty game amongst dishonest, semi-literate land-owners and people of business; our legal profession was among the first of the professions to be reformed).
‘The tabling system worked, but it was extremely tedious and complex; few were able to master it with confidence. Worse yet, many mistrusted what they weren’t able to understand for themselves, suspecting that these early Scribes meant to dupe them. In fact,’ he added with an ambiguous smile, ‘some did misuse their knowledge to that end.
‘One day, a Scribe named Noelon di Foerssen announced that he had made an ingenious discovery. By taking the simplest of characters, and assigning to them all of the specific oral sounds used in speech, he found that less than fifty of these were needed, compared to the two-hundred-fifty-thousand-some-odd characters then in use. The implications, of course, were seen right away. What began as a method to record commerce, became the means to record our oral traditions.
‘Thus began the Written Word, which changed everything, including ourselves, absolutely and forever.’
Haloch paused from his work to change nibs on his stylus, and to gather his thoughts. The false Adjunct used this opportunity to flex his cramped muscles as he waited for the old Scribe to speak once more.
Finally continuing, Haloch said, ‘The early Scribes thus began writing everything down to better preserve their records and their knowledge. But this simple act altered everything in two ways. Once the Lore became Written Knowledge, it ceased to change, and took on a character that was completely different from that of our lesser Faerie kindred. It was no longer purely a thing of Nature. Rather, it became a thing of Power and of Control, becoming rigid and inflexible.
‘Undeterred, generations of scholars began adding their own knowledge and experience to the Elven Lore, and it grew until it seemed to possess a life all its own. Indeed, the knowledge contained therein soon passed beyond the scope or ken of any one individual, being far too potent for any being, mortal or otherwise, to wield without grave risk.
‘At this time, there came Men from beyond the Western sea. They had made a great journey, sailing in tall ships, the like of which we had never seen.’
Haloch had Mraan’s undivided attention now, if not that of the false Adjunct. Both had heard mention of these travellers from the past so seldom that they had assumed that Haloch’s knowledge of them was confined to folklore and hearsay, and they listened with growing wonder.
‘These men were explorers, and didn’t stay long amongst our people. Their curiosity was, for the better part, consumed by the strange stars they saw in our heavens, the geography of our lands, the creatures that lived in them, and such; their interest in us was largely short-lived.
‘The truth be known (you will read this is none of the surviving records, but only a fool could fail to see the truth of it once he has read them through), these Men looked down upon us, and what they saw in us was cause for argument and discord amongst them-’
‘Why?’ Mraan inturrupted, partly curious, partly incensed. The false Adjunct found himself wishing that he, too, could ask questions, instead of merely listening.
‘In some ways, our Faerie kindred have always asked that same question of us,’ his father replied, cryptically. ‘Answer that question, and you will have your answer.
‘Regardless, some of their number remained; why, I do not know. Old tales tell that there were five who did so, but that is untrue. When I was young, about your age, and newly prenticed, it was my job to copy old scrolls that were falling into dust.’
He sighed. ‘It was tedious work, translating tongues of which no one knew the meaning. So long was I assigned to the task that, first the various languages became familiar to my eyes, and then by coming across the same or similar accounts in tongues I knew, the meaning of these languages became known to me.
‘Had the Loremasters I worked under known that I, a mere Scribe, could read knowledge they thought secret, I doubt very much that I would have been allowed to continue. But curiosity encouraged my silence, if not my diligence, and I managed to learn much that they knew.
‘I learned that there was not one group of explorers, buy many, over many years, and that these were the last of a long series.
‘There was bitter disagreement amongst these particular explorers about whether or not to continue. They had been travelling long; some said they missed their wives and families; others argued that conditions where they lived were not worth returning to. In the end, a group of them rebelled; from the accounts I have read, I would estimate that they numbered in the hundreds. They departed for what is now the Kingdom of Brand, to the south, where the sons of their kindred dwelt, though according to their own tales, some fifteen or twenty decided to remain here, in Nith.
‘I must tell you that what I am about to tell you is a myth of Men, one that they jealously and unreasonably hold to, despite the truth. The myth goes like this:
‘One of these Men who allegedly remained, a Loremaster (a silly notion in and of itself, because Men have no magical Lore as we do), began to study the Book of Runes (As you well know, no Man has ever laid eyes on this document). This man (according to the tale) proved to be uncannily adept at grasping the Lore, and he soon discovered a way to circumvent the power inherent in the Lore itself. He accomplished this seemingly impossible task by creating a means of articulation through which great power could be channelled without harming the user. This method of articulation bore the form and appearance of an opaque white stone, which he overlaid with silver, in the shape of a serpent’s head, so that the stone showed only through its “eyes.” This device he called the Vhurd-Aq.
‘He then created a receptacle for the Power itself; a tall staff carved with Runes of Power. To complete this task, he then mounted the stone atop the staff, and took upon himself the title of Wizard.
‘Such might had never before been witnessed by Elves, Dwarves, or Men (a ridiculous claim! In the tale, he practically ruled the Three Peoples as a King. In the tale, the Three Peoples are united, something that has never happened, and will probably never be done. There is not, and has never been, a Three Peoples). The seasons were stopped in their course! (That this had been accomplished by our own Elven Loremasters, without the help or intervention of Men, is beside the point of the tale). The cold, hungry months were gone, seemingly forever. Famine and drought were banished. No tree or leaf was tainted by blight. No one suffered from ill-health. No children were born lame or deformed.
‘This Wizard, Bellandor by name, was much revered in his time. And much loved, for he was kindly by nature. Yet his kind nature proved unfortunate, in a way, rendering him blind him to the evil in the world.
‘Fell creatures began to prowl our northern borders; Goblins who hated the light of day, who hated all living things that walked free upon the Earth, and who hated Elves most of all.
‘In the beginning they presented more of a dangerous nuisance than a real threat, being few and disorganized, and lacking any apparent leadership.
‘Then, one day, utterly without warning or provocation, they swept down from the North, wielding an evil Lore which was easily a match for Bellandor and his Elven Loremasters.
‘To the dismay of all, our people were driven before them like chaff before a storm. When news of this reached Bellandor’s ears, he summoned the First Council, instructed and organised the Elves, and with an army, went to meet this threat.
‘War ensued; the first our people had ever experienced. Were it not for the leadership of Bellandor, we might soon have been utterly overwhelmed,’ Haloch said this with such a comically pedantic flair that Mraan had to laugh, ‘for such barbarity was not in our nature. The other Faerie folk fled in terror, appalled by the unspeakable violence which desecrated the innocence of the peaceful countryside.
‘Badly overmatched, Bellandor was forced to retreat, until he was utterly driven from the Northern Provinces, or the Orna I Morag, as they were called in those days. (That is about the only part of the tale that is true, that we Elves were driven from the Northern Provinces).
‘When it appeared that the Elves might fall, however, aid came in the form of Men and Dwarves from the South and South-East, though what part they supposedly played is unclear. I think the tellers of these old myths were careful to skirt such specifics so that they could avoid answering embarrassing questions. It seemed to have made for a more credulous audience by placing the tale in a far-off corner of the world, of which they knew little. As well, it made their tales seem more glamorous to their Human listeners, I think.
‘Regardless, to return to the story; the battles fought were so horrific, the losses so great, that few survived to tell the tale, often returning to their homelands in obscurity because the world had changed in their absence (a common theme in the past, whereby the bards of Men of old would gain credulity- though actually nothing more than travelling vagrants, they would claim to have just returned from some far-off place. Their stock-in-trade seems to have been self-pity mixed with such tall tales- I mean, storytelling!).
‘Bellandor, meanwhile, had a brother (pay close attention, now! Their relationship is central to the “meaning” of the tale) who had accompanied him on their people’s journey. Although the brother had little or no interest in Bellandor’s doings at first, he had grown jealous of Bellandor’s fame and became covetous of his power, and his influence with we Elves. He decided to become greater in Lore than his brother, and so began to study the Lore with manic diligence.
‘The brother soon realised that mastering the Elves’ Lore was not enough. He would only be equal to his brother once this was accomplished. He began searching out other Lore in secret. His search took him at last to the Elid-hranin, a tribe of Elves in the mountains of the far North who had become estranged from us, due to unhappy chance. Where they lived, even the Dwarves feared to go, though they could not put a name to what it was they feared.
‘The Elid-hranin were loathe to share their knowledge, so he made with them a pact. They would share their knowledge only if he did the same.
‘His study of their Lore proved a bitter disappointment at first; though subtly different, its efficacy was no greater than our own; that which was present in their Lore when theirs and ours were well nigh one and the same had remained extant in almost every way.
‘But then, he conceived of, and did, an incredibly evil thing, practising on the Elid-hranin what he had learned from his brother; as when Bellandor had created a Wizard’s Staff, he attempted to use the Elid-hranin themselves as the means to articulate his Power, at the same time creating a receptacle of such might as was clearly insane to do-’
‘But it is well known,’ Mraan protested, interrupting, ‘that there was no corruption of the Elid-hranin; that they were and always have been Dark Elves-’
‘There is no need to remind me of this!’ his father replied patiently. ‘As I said at the beginning, this is a fiction of Men, who seem to love perpetuating such myths. Regardless; according to the tale, his brother proceeded with a reckless abandon that, in the end, thwarted his mad ambitions, for he too was as blind in his way as the kindly Bellandor; his attempt failed, the Elid-hranin were changed, horribly, becoming the warped, gangrel creatures they are today; yet he succeeded to the extent that they had no choice but to answer to his will.’ Mraan rolled his eyes at this.
‘Bellandor, meanwhile, was greatly disturbed by the Power he could feel behind the Goblins’ very essence, so similar was it to the Lore he knew so well. “How can this be?” he wondered. A cold dread made him confront his brother, who was often seen entering and leaving the Library, in secret, or so he thought. But suspicion and fear had sharpened the Elves’ eyes, so that his comings and goings no longer went unnoticed. They then told Bellandor what he dreaded most to hear; that his brother was often seen sneaking about in secret. He would disappear for months at a time, travelling Northeast into the Forbidden Mountains, where only Trolls and the self-exiled Elid-hranin lived.
‘The next time the brother thought to enter the Library upon his return, he found his way barred by Bellandor.
‘“Hail, Bellandor,” he had said, unable to conceal either his suspicion or his fear of being caught, “What business brings you hither?”
‘“The Elves have told me that you have been seen making your way north and east into the mountains, unaccompanied,” Bellandor replied.
His brother shrugged. “What of it? Am I not free to come and go as I please?”
‘“I wish you would tell me,” said Bellandor, “what the object of your curiosity is, that takes you alone and in secret to such an evil place.”
‘“The object?’ replied his brother, trying to conceal his surprise. ‘How do you know that it isn’t simple curiosity which takes me there?”
‘“I said nothing of an object,” replied Bellandor.
‘His brother’s eyes widened as he realised his mistake. And for a moment, he considered telling Bellandor all, as there had once been a bond of love between them. But the moment was lost, for Bellandor’s greater wit, once a matter of respect for his younger brother, was now taken as a challenge; a threat.
‘Mistakenly thinking that he had been found out, he then made his final mistake. Thinking to win Bellandor over, he said, “Brother, I have learned a thing, a way to increase our Power immeasurably, by working it through others, though I have not yet been entirely successful.”
‘“Through others?” Bellandor replied faintly in dismay.
‘“Yes,” his brother replied, mistaking Bellandor’s reaction for interest, “in the same way that you use Staff and Stone; and therein lies their limitation. They cannot think for themselves.”
‘Bellandor was appalled, trying to fathom the enormity of what his misguided sibling had done. “Such a Power . . .”
‘“Is Ours alone, and not the impotent toy these weak-minded fools have fashioned.”
‘Bellandor was crushed by this revelation, as he had only himself to blame for ignoring the inevitable and overwhelming consequences such awful Power would inflict, turning the temptations of power into an irremediable addiction for which there was no cure. This addiction had led to his brother’s fall, and the subsequent perversion of the unlucky Elid-hranin. He realized, too, for the first time, that the Goblins and the Elid-hranin were one and the same.
‘And now, he would have to stop him.
‘“Morlock, my brother . . . where is this evil thing you’ve fashioned?”
Evil? Morlock pondered, looking puzzled. Evil?
‘Bellandor simply nodded, watching his brother carefully.
‘Even then, Morlock could have turned away from his ill-chosen path. But he chose, rather, to turn his back on reason instead, and feigning affronted pride, said, “What you call evil, I choose to call control.”
‘“Ah. And who is to wield this control?” Bellandor asked him.
‘“I had thought to share this control with you,” hissed Morlock in a low voice. In this he spoke the truth, though they both knew how long such a sharing of Power would last.
‘“I do not want that sort of Power, as you should well know,” said Bellandor, “for there is naught in it but harm.”
‘More than any other words spoken, those went most to Morlock’s heart, for he had seen his works and his scheming as both mighty and complex. At that moment, he loosed his hold of all reason, and turned instead to all that he deemed that was left to him.
‘Power, for its own sake.
‘“Are you going to kill me, brother?” he asked Bellandor, watching him askance.
‘Bellandor closed his eyes to the sight of his mad brother as though in pain. And though he knew it to be a grave mistake, slowly shook his head.
‘Morlock then gave Bellandor a brief look that chilled him to the marrow; then he turned and left, never to return.
‘Shaken, Bellandor leaned against one of the many pillars that supported the beautiful, airy, open Library of Nith, for so this place used to look. The older structure is still there to see, if one looks carefully. Looking up mournfully at this great, graceful and wonderfully ornamented building, Bellandor had said with a sigh, “Alas, that you must become like my brother’s mind, fortified, forever closed and dark inside, accessible only at need when the world outside impinges. Ah, Ignorance! Ignorance!” He shook his fist at the heavens as though they had betrayed him. And then, realising the import of the direction of his blame, he knelt to the ground and wept.’
Mraan frowned. ‘There are some elements of truth in the tale. The Library was fortified, but for reasons other than those given in the story. The Elid-hranin are evil, but they have always been so.’
Haloch nodded as he reached for a tray holding dozens of crude glass pots, each containing various amounts of the coloured substances used to “paint” illustrations. It was an odd characteristic of these substances that their power was latent until the illustration began taking shape.
Finding the colour he desired, Haloch said, ‘I was quoting from manuscripts so old and forgotten that I doubt if any but a few of our Loremasters know of their existence. I do not know that Men still tell this tale themselves, but elements of it remain in their culture.
‘You have no doubt heard talk about the sort of Good and the Evil that Men believe in, that they speak of the great Power of Lore, and the sense of utter helplessness and frustration which accompanies it. In the tale, Bellandor himself agonized over the fact that no amount of Power could simply turn the world into a better place . . . that Power has a way of luring even the kindest and the wisest down roads where vision and judgement are of little use . . . roads that carry the traveller always to ever changing kinds of belief and thinking and seeing and feeling, that such a traveller is forever in danger of becoming lost to himself.
‘Such was Morlock’s fate. In his way, Bellandor fared little better, as doubt, guilt, and fear for the future were his only constant companions. But where Morlock was blinded by intentions which were wholly selfish, Bellandor began with a good heart, and so luck or fate was more in his favour than his brother’s.’
‘I have heard other tales based upon similar themes,’ Mraan said. ‘But the so-called hero always perishes in the end, and it is said that something of Evil still dwells in the north, and always will.’
Haloch paused from his work only briefly, but such an occurrence was so rare that his son listened all the more carefully to his words.
‘In this tale, that is true as well, that Bellandor perished, even as he threw down his brother and all his works. But the point to this tale, as least for Men, is that they truly believe that at the last, Bellandor’s simple act of bravery and sacrifice, without hope or vision to guide him . . . without the grace of a single companion at the end to comfort him . . . saved us all, from Evil and from ourselves, whether we know it or not-’
‘Of all the arrogant presumption!’ Mraan blurted.
‘Of course,’ the old Scribe said mildly. ‘This has always been one of the greatest problems with Man and his beliefs; that he feels he has the right to hold the rest of the world hostage to ideas that are at best alien to the rest of us.
‘Yet I find that there is value in such stories, of a sort. You must admit, they do have a way of telling us something about the teller-’
‘And about the listeners!’ Mraan said, distastefully.
‘Yes, well,’ the old Scribe said, with slow relish, a smile creasing his ascetic features, ‘Do you know what the more modern caste of Men call such tales?’
Mraan, who of course did not know, had no choice but to wait for his father to answer his own question.
‘They call them Faerie Tales.’
Their sudden burst of laughter was cut short by a sound that caused them to look around, nervously.
Frowning, hastily resuming work on the final illustration, Haloch muttered, ‘Nor do I believe in stories about ghosts!’