College of Errensea, 3027.2.06
‘And there you are, my dearest, only waiting for the touch to bring you to life.’
The bulky figure, silhouetted by the light of the lantern he carried, reached into the opened cabinet. His cautious hand withdrew the slim, calfskin-bound grimoire. He caressed the oiled cover, traced the embossed lettering with a smooth fingertip. The words spelled out in Middle Parsee: ‘Majiks Mayoris’. He tapped the spine with a long, strong fingernail and giggled. ‘Such an original and imaginative title! Still, interesting enough I think.’ He slipped the book into a pocket deep inside his midnight-blue robe with a profound sigh of satisfaction. It had been so easy. The locks on the library doors had not tested him; the guardian spells were put aside as quick as thinking. He was impatient with their stupidity. To keep such books, so rare and so powerful, in this measly box, and so poorly protected? It was beyond belief. He moved to close the doors of the cabinet but then stopped, listening.
Though all was silent in Holander’s Crypt, the intruder, for so he was and a thief too, had become convinced he could hear a noise. It was a small, murmuring, jangle of a noise that shivered his shoulders. He turned to view the narrow corridor behind him. The lantern’s glow crept out into the gloom, but there was nothing to see other than the cold marble floor, the towering racks and the tightly-packed books they housed.
He stepped along the aisle. Despite the silence all around the jangling continued. He realised then that the noise was in his mind. Most peculiar, he thought. The revelation brought him to a standstill. He looked all around. Nothing seemed out of place. He considered the sensation. If it had been a real sound there would have been a clear direction for him to follow. What about this not-sound? It had begun in the back of his head as he faced the cabinet and then rattled in his temples as he turned to walk the aisle. Now? He spun on his heel, eyes searching the shadows along the way he had come. And there it was: something odd on that lowest shelf a few yards back. He approached and lowered the lantern. There, hemmed-in by lesser peers, stood an ancient volume of enormous proportions.
He cocked an ear. Was this it? Would it call out to him, acknowledge his presence? He gave the game a few moments, and then a few moments more. Apparently it would not. The murmuring, ringing not-sound continued but if somehow the book was involved there was no obvious sign. It stood there, nothing more than one volume among thousands, mute, unmoving, lifeless as a gravestone. Ha! And silent as a tome! Enough of this nonsense, he decided, there is business to be done!
Seconds passed and became minutes. He did not move a single step. Striving to be beyond distraction, he found himself held by the sheer size and weight and mass of the thing. It was a curiosity. He liked curiosities, and he might never see this one again – what would be the harm in a quick look? Without warning his resistance crumbled. All his attention, all his thought fell towards the book as a body would fall to the earth. Hardly managing to keep to his feet, he bent to examine this fateful attraction. With a fold of his sleeve he rubbed away the grime obscuring the titles. In gold lettering on cracked brown leather ran the promising legend:
‘What are you then, a history book?’
He placed his lantern on the floor and knelt, the better to grip and to lever the mighty work off the shelf. It was impossibly heavy and slipped out of his grasp, thudding onto the stone floor and spraying dust everywhere. He tut-tutted his distaste. With two hands he hauled open the cover. The flyleaf had a preface inscribed with green ink:
‘FOR HIS HIGHNESS KING BANYA
First Ruler of the State of Gothery,
Lord of Wisdom and Power.
Another letter! Writing is all I seem to do these days. Well, I have a plan, a good plan I might add, that will get me away from this jail of a desk at last. Banya, dear friend, I’m taking these old bones of mine on one final journey: you’ll not see me again! That should please you. I’ll embarrass your court no longer. There’ll be no more grumbles from me about draughty corridors and poor wine. Not after I’ve done with this anyway. You won’t like it, ‘dry and dull’ you’ll say. But I’d be grateful if you could keep it safe, someone may find a use in it. I do hope so, it’s taken such a devil of a time getting it all down. What’s it for? It’s here to speak the truth, Banya, a truth kept hidden far too long. Those who need to know will read it in times to come. There are copies I’ve sent to some others but this fellow must stay in Astoril. I’m sure you’ll find room in that library of yours. Anyway, here it is.
With due respect and many thanks,
Oh yes, I nearly forgot to mention, it will tend to get itself lost so perhaps you ought to keep a record of where you’ve put it. Just in case.
The intruder chuckled. ‘Some people do not know when to stop. What is he going on about this time, I wonder?’ He turned some pages and began to read. His Middle Parsee was a little slow and the majority of the names and places mentioned were unknown to him but the words he read tickled his imagination. ‘How very interesting, dear Haslem. The Song of Ages! Splendid, but did you really mean to write this out for everyone to read?’ He shook his head. So foolish! He frowned. The jangling was giving him a headache. And what is the point of this? Surely you didn’t want us all deafened? He wondered how to stop it. Perhaps the ringing would lessen if he moved away from the book. He walked to the end of the aisle but if anything the noise was getting worse. He returned and addressed the book directly:
‘Well then, what shall we do with you? Steal you as well?’ He sized it up. ‘No. Too noisy, too weighty. We were made for each other, this is true, but I would need a donkey to carry you. For now, back on the shelf, I think. If all goes well, and it will, there will be plenty of time later for us to get better acquainted.’
It was a struggle. A fat belly did not lend itself to bending double and lifting heavy weights, and getting the book back where it should be left him red in the face. Too much wine and too much food: it could well be the death of him, but not just yet awhile he hoped – he had far too many plots and plans on the boil. As he straightened he put out an arm to steady himself but his hand pulled too heavily on a loose shelf and several books tumbled to the floor.
‘Who’s there?’ a voice called out.
The intruder’s heart lurched in his chest. That damn ringing in his head must have deafened him to everything else. He did not pause to recover his lantern but ran-off as fast as he could manage. Within seconds he had crashed through the grille door of the Crypt and scurried out into the maze of corridors beyond. The flapping of his feet marked his course this way and that but he did not once hesitate. Even in the dark he knew the way fine well. He was making for the exit and the chance of escape. It would be a close thing though, for this was certainly a chase: some way back, and catching up, other footsteps were pounding away.
His breathing was ragged by the time he had dashed up the staircase to the ground floor. At a teeter he clattered through the Great Hall, in the darkness colliding with chairs and misplaced stools, the library itself slowing his pace. As he barged through the main door into the Library Walk his pursuer shouted out for him to Stop! The word fell upon him; the command yanked at the muscles in his calves. A lesser man would have fallen to his knees but with only a few muttered words the intruder rebuffed the command and plunged onwards.
A tree-lined avenue crossed the end of the Library Walk. With his lungs fit to burst, and utterly exhausted, he played a last card. He stopped at the first tree he came to, leaned up against it and, just as the other bowled into view, he disappeared.
The other was a tall man wearing a dressing gown and slippers. The intruder observed this interloper through invisible eyes and knew him at once: it was the Wizard Beltomé. How could he have known to leave his bed and come to the library? The man trotted a few yards in one direction and then a few in the other and then stopped to catch his breath. There was only a sliver of moon and low in the sky: he would make-out very little by its light, and yet he stood motionless for a good three minutes. The intruder struggled to maintain his position, willing his enemy to move on, to admit defeat. Instead Beltomé cupped his hands and spoke soft words and a glow that shone red through his fingers became white and bright as the palms spread wide. Almost the intruder moved, quailing from the seeking light. But if he moved he’d be found. He held on to his posture though the rigour of it cramped his muscles.
The wizard, holding his palms before him, searched left and right, at one point passing barely an arm’s length from his target, and yet still he did not see. He moved away along the walk, ten yards, twenty and then stopped. The intruder heard him curse softly: there was nothing to be discerned, nothing to be found. Dismissing the light Beltomé thrust his hands into his pockets, and then marched-off at pace over to the faculty house, intent no doubt on raising the alarm.
His quarry waited until he was well out of sight before easing away from the tree to become visible once more. He staggered – to say nothing of the chase, the spell that had made him part of the tree had been unpleasant and painful – but his face was thunderous.
Damn you, Seama Beltomé, he raged inside. Well, you have had your chance and failed. And you will fail again—
A pair of blackbirds, roused from sleep, twittered and flapped in the branches above him. Their movement gave him pause and focus. He looked up and smiled, a quick and broad smile to encourage, and he reached out a friendly hand to beckon. The hen squabbled and held back but the cock, with images of worms and grubs filling its thoughts, was seduced by the promise. Dropping onto his benefactor’s palm the blackbird tipped his head.
Hah! So eager to come to me, an endearing attitude. Ah, and a fine creature you are, so handsome, so young, with so much to learn.
The bird chattered a little, still trusting but impatient for the food.
It is unfortunate, bird, that you have not yet learnt when best to stay silent!
And then he clutched the poor thing tight in his fist, crushing until he squeezed the life out of it. Dropping the wreckage of bone and blood to the pavement at his feet, he picked the small clinging feathers from his hands. Bereft, the mate, without a chirrup or final song, flew away as quickly as she might.
Assuaged by blood, the intruder, thief, or whatever else he was, master of all he assailed, patted the book in its secret pocket to make sure it was still there, took a deep breath and began to smile once more.
Very soon, Seama, I will be Tap-Rod and your interference will end.
THE BEST OF MEN
SONG OF AGES
An epic fantasy of monsters, gods, warriors and wizards, of heedless villains and decent everyday people.
Available as a Paperback Original
at £17.99 / $22
and as a kindle edtion
now at £/$ 6.99
COINCIDENT - The Best of Men Pt 1
is available as a kindle serial edition
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Wilf Kelleher Jones
A Song of Ages