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Chapter 6: A session in the library

While I was still living with my true parents, there had been neither scrolls nor books nor anything else literary in my life; indeed, once it had become clear what I was, even bedtime stories lay far beyond my expectations. I have no idea whether the spoiled children of the nobility find themselves enriched by access to scrolls and books—though a year spent at Court leads me to doubt it—but it was only after I’d fled my home and been adopted by a real father that I discovered what I’d been missing.

The men who patrolled the King’s forest had little money and few luxuries; indeed, had they not been given the right to hunt in the forest and provision themselves therein, some would have starved. Yet my father, for all his responsibilities and impoverished means, had acquired a love of the written word, and had spent as much of his paltry wages as he could retain on scrolls and other written materials. Surprisingly many were simply forgotten and left behind at hunting lodges by visiting nobility, becoming the communal property of the foresters. Father was a musician, so much of what he purchased involved music, whether moth-eaten scrolls of musical notation or recent copies of popular ballads, and that fed my musical talents. But many of the abandoned texts fed my curiosity and my vocabulary, eventually providing the skills I’d later use to earn my employment at Court. Some were rare treasures, collections of tales from the old days, and I had cherished them and learned to read from them. Indeed, I’d read them often enough to be capable of reciting most in their entirety from memory.

Today, enticed by access to more written information than I had ever conceived existed, I returned to the library, this time somewhat less dramatically than the last time. The sages continued their quiet discussion, and the librarian stood in the center of the room, lost in thought, hand on her chin and gazing at the shelves. I shuffled my feet and cleared my throat as I drew closer, not wanting to startle her.

“Ah. You’re back. I’m sorry, Sir, but I’ve had little luck. I’ve found only a single scroll so far.”

“Far better than I’d expected, and I congratulate you on your efforts. Actually, I’ve not returned to pester you. I thought you might know of other, more familiar works that might provide useful information while I await your discovery of the two works I seek. But now...”

She smiled, pleased. “An interest in my treasures is rare enough that I begrudge you none of the time I spent serving you.” She cast a glance over her shoulder to where the two sages sat engaged in battle. “If you wish to begin your studies, you will find the scroll upon my desk.” She pointed to a well-lit corner of the room where sat a small, oaken table with a clean surface and one scroll upon it.

“I thank you for your kindness, and I would be honored to make use of your desk.” I bowed and made my way to the desk.

She called out as I turned away. “Mind you: that scroll is ancient. Handle it with more care than if you were holding a newborn babe.”

I placed my sack upon the table, then leaned my lute against the wall. The desk turned out to be—oh pleasant surprise!—almost too small for me to fit my legs beneath, but I managed with some effort. I had the remainder of the day to find an opportune time to steal the scroll, so I decided first to examine it and determine whether I could find some hint of what Orgrim sought. Apart from my own curiosity, I was beginning to feel I could not go too heavily armed into my dealings with Orgrim. My nightmare may have planted a seed, or it may have just been some overactive survival instinct, but his furtive behavior was beginning to raise some alarms. I set aside for the moment the matter of why those alarms might be silent in his presence.

The scroll bore a single word for its title, Exodus, but it was the subtitle that caught my attention: Our doom and how we fled it. Every child, even an orphan such as myself, was familiar with the general outline of the Exodus story, though knowing the details was quite another matter. In those long nights spent with my foster father, alone in the woods after repairing our tools and after the necessary chores of living were done, we’d had little else to entertain us beyond reading, sharing what we’d learned through the telling of stories and the singing of old ballads as a means of passing the time. In consequence, I’d learned more of the story than most; indeed, memories of those tales and songs acquired through frequent repetition had been enough to gain me a chance to serve the King as bard and jester.

All versions of the Exodus story, however else they differed, agreed upon two things: some great doom had fallen upon the old lands of mankind as a result of dire magic, and those who’d survived had fled across the great ocean to land here in the west. Records of that time were well-nigh nonexistent, for writing materials and time to use them had been low priorities during the Exodus, and few scrolls or books had survived from that time. The ensuing colonization of the new lands was little better understood, for we had lacked the luxury of sufficient time to record any but the most important things while struggling to secure a foothold here; mostly what remained were songs and other things that could be preserved orally, and these had changed enough in the singing and telling that true details of those times were lost. The few writing supplies that had been available during the voyage, the one period during which there had indeed been time to record things, had been put to use on more urgent matters, such as planning our new home.

If the tales were to be believed, one of the puzzles of the Exodus was that we’d found a new home at all. In those days, the Dwarves—not my kin, popular superstitions notwithstanding—had been a sparse but prolifically combative race, and the magic of the Elves had been such they should have defeated the feeble armies of mankind, undefended as we were against anything magical; together or separately, the two should have cast us back into the seas from whence we came once our intentions became clear. Fortunately, the third race said to have inhabited these lands, the Goblins, had hated us less than they hated their two more ancient enemies. Evidently, they were familiar with the old adage that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, and had seized upon the opportunity to present the Elves and the Dwarves with a war on two fronts. Apparently, that diversion had been enough to buy us time and—eventually—peace.

The result, these many years later, was that none of these three elder races remained a presence within our lands. Their absence made it increasingly likely that each race was nothing more than a fable, or perhaps a cautionary metaphor intended to keep us united; if the latter, they’d failed in their role, for with no other enemies to fight, we’d repeatedly turned our efforts upon ourselves.

I had my doubts the tales were as mythical as some claimed. It was no great feat of imagination to believe in the Dwarves, for though not a one had been seen outside their mountains in living memory, there were still a few traders who regularly made the sea journey to Stormhold to trade for rare metals and skillfully wrought weapons. I’d seen enough signs during my life in the woods to want to believe in the existence of the Elves, though I’d never actually seen one of them and knew of no woodsman who claimed to have done so. As for the Goblins, there were persistent rumors of bitter warfare against them in the lands west of Amelior, and for some years now, Ankur and the other eastern powers had been sending military aid to Amelior in the form of supplies and observers. Yet neither was there any direct evidence of the Goblins, and I’d met nobody who claimed to have fought one. This lack of evidence was difficult to reconcile with the unmistakable payments of some form of tribute to Amelior even though we’d won that war.

In short, there was much about the Exodus to occupy an inquisitive mind, and I was eager to feed that curiosity now I had both time and opportunity.

I unrolled the fragile scroll carefully, using two flat stones, each the size of my fist and polished smooth, to hold it open to the section I was reading. I shan’t bore you with a literal recounting of what I read, for a summary does the matter far more justice. As expected, the language was antique and verbose, written in an ornate and cramped hand on parchment scraped into near transparency, with a flowery style that made comprehension difficult. But what I’d not expected was the presence of frequent passages in the text that appeared to have been written in some foreign tongue.

No... Not a foreign tongue, though it’s as close as I can come to stating what was wrong with the words. I studied those sections with some care, until my head ached, and found myself increasingly perplexed by my inability to comprehend. It was not the writing itself, for my careful examination convinced me the lettering was identical to that used in the rest of the scroll, and was the work of the same scribe; it was obvious they were not later annotations, for the words were an integral part of the main text rather than some subsequent commentary scrawled in the margins or overlying the original writing. Besides, the only foreign languages I could imagine were those of the Dwarves, Elves, or Goblins, and how could they have contributed to the scroll?

So the words had been written at the same time as the rest of the text, that much was clear. Moreover, the shape and the construction of the words followed the familiar patterns for our language, and it was easy to break the words into their component letters once I’d figured out the peculiarities of the scribe’s hand. I tried copying some of the words on a scrap of parchment the librarian had left beside her plume and ink, and it was easy enough to make those copies. Yet these parts of the text simply had no meaning, even when copied onto my own parchment or when the mystery amounted to a single word whose meaning should have been clear from context.

My association with Orgrim suggested the obvious answer: some powerful magic had been applied to the scroll to make key portions incomprehensible to such as me. Certain elements of what I subsequently read provided tantalizing hints of why that might have been, but left me with no direct answers. Let me tell you what I found—and what I was unable to learn—so that you may judge.

I can say with some certainty that our ancestors were a great race, far more prosperous than we are today. Much of their prosperity came from prodigious works of magic, the like of which had never been performed in the new lands. Let me clarify that: Given my transformation by Orgrim and his hints he was not alone, it would be more appropriate to say that no such feats of magic were spoken of in the tales of our early years in the new lands, nor were there frightened rumors of any such in recent memory. Nonetheless, Orgrim’s veiled comments led me to wonder just how much magic still existed among us, entirely unsuspected.

According to the scroll’s unnamed author, the magic of our ancestors had tempted sorcerers into feats that such wise men and women should have shunned. As in any cautionary tale, there’d been disastrous consequences for those whose desires outstripped their skills. Indeed, the notion that great magics always had a price was a familiar one, almost a cliché to those who learned the old ballads, and my pondering of the matter had led me to conclude this was nothing more than remnants of the moralizing typical of those who preserved ancient lore. Other times, I’d suspected the fearmongering was dramatic embellishment intended to discourage the commoners from pursuing such dangerous knowledge and threatening their betters. However, the experience I’d so recently undergone forced me to reassess my beliefs and suspect that perhaps the old tales were truer than most suspected.

Despite the oft-repeated risks of delving in magic, there were many in those days who became powerful through its study. The scroll painted a brief, but fascinating picture of life in those days before the Exodus. There had been many luxuries: the ability to produce books in copious quantities to facilitate the spread of knowledge, the ability to heal diseases and wounds that were fatal in our present time, and strange and wonderful contrivances of various sorts. Yet there were also obscure aspects I simply could not puzzle out, things that had something mystical to say about our origins and our eventual destiny as a people. Some were related to what came after death, a matter that no modern man claimed any knowledge of, and I wasted considerable effort trying to understand these aspects; it had always disturbed me, not to mention far wiser philosophers, that we had no knowledge of where life came from and what happened after death. For such a fundamental matter, this was more than passing strange, and I began to suspect the same magic that baffled my comprehension of the scroll was at work on a far vaster scale. That left me with a deep unease in my heart, for it revealed depths whose existence I’d never before suspected.

I found myself drawn deeper into the story, now eager to look for additional hints to support my suspicions. The scroll now told something of the world-ending events that precipitated the Exodus. I’ve mentioned that great magics always carried a personal cost, but they carried a greater cost to the race that permitted them. It was obvious the author was speculating, because much of what he’d written was metaphorical and contained subtle contradictions. What eventually emerged was the image of one or more mages, supreme over all others in their skill, who’d attempted something nobody should ever have been foolish enough to attempt. The consequences had destroyed them and nearly mankind too. As a result of their folly, our people had been forced to flee the lands they’d inhabited since the beginning of time. They had time to do three things before fleeing, of which only one made sense.

The first of these was predictable, and a reassuring testament to how little humanity had changed over the centuries: everyone who fled found time to pack things both prudent and foolish and carry them onto the ships, and they fought, betrayed, bribed, or sacrificed themselves to determine who would be granted life in a new land, and who would remain behind to die. Many tales of courage and heroism have come to us from those days, mostly as songs and familiar, often-told legends. The scroll told of equally many dark and shameful tales of the wrongs men did unto each other in the name of survival, including finding room on ships for possessions at the expense of lives.

The second and far more disturbing thing was a terrible massacre and an equally terrible destruction of priceless knowledge before anyone boarded the boats. This sequence of events took much of my time in the library to puzzle out, for although most of the description of these events was clear, these parts of the scroll also contained the highest proportion of obscured text I’d yet encountered. It was clear enough that anything smacking of wizardry had been destroyed: the spell caster himself or herself, the books and scrolls that stored the victim’s knowledge, and the tools of magic or powerful implements created thereby. This destruction was cold, ruthless, and efficient, and seemed a pragmatic if horrific attempt to rid themselves of what had destroyed the old world and thereby prevent it from coming to the new.

The puzzling part was that once that first burst of destruction was complete, a whole new class of victims had been slain and their property and possessions destroyed. The quantity of the obscured words made it impossible to understand just what these people had done to merit their deaths; as nearly as I could understand from context, they’d been akin to and yet wholly unlike wizards and witches, and had occupied a far more important and accepted role in daily life. What that role had been remained maddeningly unclear, yet our ancestors had felt so deeply and wholly betrayed by these individuals that their betrayal inspired a murderous hatred far beyond what had led to the elimination of magic from our lives. This second slaughter was described in such a manner that the appalling cruelty of the murders and the indiscriminate destruction of property that followed could not be doubted. Like all men, I’ve hated others at times, and with more cause than most, but even so, I couldn’t imagine a hatred sufficient to birth what happened to these mysterious people.

The third thing, which appeared contradictory given that it ostensibly followed the destruction of anything that resembled magic, was the casting of a great spell of protection to seal humanity away from the ruin of the old world. This spell was related in some way obscured by the passage of time to the ancient bloodoath that had served to unite mankind in the absence of any other security amidst those chaotic times; indeed, I now suspected the massive and lovingly described shedding of blood that preceded the Exodus may have played an important part in that final spell. All at once, I understood why Orgrim’s blood magic had been so familiar: I’d unwittingly participated in the rite of bloodoath, and thereby bound myself to Orgrim in a manner I’d not suspected. Though Orgrim had been fair thus far, and had allowed me a measure of freedom in my actions, I’d a suspicion it was not a necessary freedom. I made a note to test that freedom at the first opportunity, establishing my new limits and thereby confirming or denying my suspicion.

The remainder of the scroll told of the hardships of the journey across the great ocean. I’d never seen an ocean before, but knew that the ocean to our east was said to be much like a lake, only salty enough to choke any man foolish enough to drink its waters and so much larger that words failed the observer. From the descriptions in the scroll, it was obvious I’d missed the point in choosing the inadequate word larger to describe an ocean. The journey westward, into the prevailing winds, had taken many weeks and perhaps even months; as always in old scrolls, estimates of time were unreliable, often chosen more for dramatic effect than to capture the reality.

But the scale of that ocean was even greater than those numbers at first suggested. When I encountered them, I paused in my reading to put them in perspective. In good country, a strong man with long legs could travel perhaps twenty miles along good roads, walking as much as a full eight hours. The ships of our ancestors had traveled at least twice that fast, even upwind, and even in bad weather, they’d traveled throughout the day and night without stopping. The numbers had by now grown far beyond my rudimentary abilities to calculate, but it was unlikely the ships had crossed less than one hundred miles in a single day. A week of such voyaging would amount to nearly a thousand miles, a span several times greater than the distance from Amelior to Volonor, which distance covered the entire expanse of human habitation in our new lands. If the journey had taken months...

As I say, calling the eastern ocean a large lake did it considerable injustice. Even allowing for the inevitable exaggeration, it was a marvel they’d had sufficient water and food to finish their journey.

The distance alone says much of the desperation of those who undertook such a plunge into the unknown. If, as the scroll suggested, they had not possessed certain knowledge of what lay so far beyond the horizon, then the calamity that drove them to such desperate measures must have been far more terrible than words can tell. Even if they had known for a certainty that safety lay beyond the horizon—or at least safety of a sort—the courage necessary to leave would have been enormous, fully the equal of that possessed by any hero of myth or legend. I dwelt on that image, and on the joy that must have sprung up in their hearts when the first lookouts of the mighty fleet bearing all that remained of mankind saw land—land that initially revealed no sign whatsoever of any other inhabitants.

I can also imagine their shock when they learned they were by no means alone. The settlers must have soon come up against the Elves, for in those days, the Southwood would have stretched across what was now farmland nearly to the ocean. In no time, of course, the settlers had begun clearing trees for shelter and to make room for farming. They’d had no choice, for their provisions had likely been exhausted long since, and a diet of fish alone had begun to make them ill. There must have been war as soon as the Elves understood what was happening, though there are few tales of these beings and of their conflicts with mankind. Later, as soon as Men entered the mountains to seek the metal ores necessary to forge new weapons and other tools, our ancestors would have encountered the Dwarves, and likely begun yet another conflict.

The scroll ended at this point, hinting at the conflict that was soon to begin, and I would have given much for the chance to learn about those times. Fortunately, the rest of the story is better known, as it deals with the founding of Volonor by the Gordon lineage, the secession and subjugation of Somorrah, and the blood feuds that led to a second exodus westward to found what was now the empire of Amelior.

To me, with no knowledge of magic beyond what the old songs revealed, what appeared to be lacking from this scroll was any indication of something that would help expand Orgrim’s mystical knowledge. Admittedly, I would not recognize something that would help a mage, but the lack was curious. Of course, it was possible that the information Orgrim sought was part of the obscured portions of the text that were beyond my comprehension, but that explanation rang false given what surrounded the incomprehensible material. So neither explanation quite satisfied me, and that left yet another thing to puzzle over.

As I rubbed my eyes, which had gone dry from that unaccustomed length of reading, I felt something brush against my leg, and looked down to see a charcoal-grey cat rubbing against my boots. I began to push it away, but before I’d done much more than form the intention, it sprang into my lap and commenced a tremendous purring that I fancied would shake the dust from the shelves. “You seem to like me,” I commented, reaching out to stroke the cat. In the manner of its folk, the slim sybarite immediately went into convulsions of ecstasy.

The librarian, who’d approached unnoticed while my attention was elsewhere, laughed loudly, startling both of us. “I see that Grey has found a new friend.”

I looked up, not stopping my stroking. “Your cat?”

“No, just a stray who wandered in one day and stayed to keep the library clear of mice and other things that would damage my treasures. I call him Grey, though surely he has a real name. Not very imaginative, I’m afraid, but when you’ve read as much as I have, you start to feel that there’s not much new under the sun in any event.”

“I think I may opt for the unimaginative myself, given that I’ve acquired a new appendage. Would you mind if I took him with me?” Acquiring a pet had been the last thing on my mind, and I wasn’t all that fond of animals to begin with, but the cat had gone to sleep in my lap, the purring now somewhat intermittent, its powerful claws hooked into the tight weave of my cloak. There was something surprisingly relaxing about its warmth and weight, and its purr was soothing. I sighed, and without disturbing the cat, I palmed another coin.

“Well, I have no claim on the cat, but he does keep the library clear of pests. If you take him away, I shall have to find a replacement.”

I slid the coin onto the table. Grey stirred, butted my hand with his head, then returned to his nap. “Would this help?”

“It would at that. You’re more than generous, Sir; that amount of money would purchase a dozen cats in the bazaar.”

I shrugged. Money was not a problem for me so long as I stuck with Orgrim. “Consider it a bonus for having helped so well in my search.”

“Given your generosity, I regret to inform you that it’s time for me to close the library. I still haven’t found the second scroll you were seeking, but I feel certain I’m getting close.”

“I’ll pack up at once, then.” As I said that, I realized that in my fascination with reading the scroll, I’d neglected to find time to steal it. A guilty voice at the back of my mind reminded me Orgrim had not intended me to read the scroll, just to steal it. That I could do early tomorrow, when Orgrim returned to obtain the scroll and its missing cousin. I gathered my possessions, with Grey tucked into the crook of an arm and patently unwilling to leave that shelter. As I left, the librarian began to argue with the two sages. I hesitated a moment, wondering whether I could snatch the scroll, then thought the better of it; if I were caught, there was scant chance the woman would continue seeking the second scroll.

I left. The day had given me much to ponder, and I was grateful for an evening alone in which to do so.

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