The spot appeared as soon as the cart climbed on top of the slope, turning into the shape of a child as it quickly approached. The way the person moved disturbed the man, being not a movement of a child at all. For once, it had a female touch, which at first stirred astonishment in him and then something darker. However there was also something he couldn’t quite put a finger on, so he waited until his carriage caught up with the kid, hoping he could catch a glimpse of her face under her hood. But the girl was keeping her head low, leaving his lit up curiosity unquenched, as long as he didn’t want to draw too much attention on himself.
When he had come out of the woods a few miles later, he granted his mule some lunch in a bend of the street and laid himself beside his cart. His thoughts kept trailing the endlessly floating miles lying before and behind, spinning like a millwheel in his head.
Waking he saw the girl coming out behind the tree-clotted turn. As he watched her through his half-closed eyes, he was suddenly able to narrow down his vague guess of queerness he noticed before. She was too old for her size. He saw it in the shape of her mouth and the age of her skin, peeking out of her sleeves and under her hood. He guessed her not younger than twenty-five, but even for a small woman she was too short, the tip of her hood wiggling not more than three foot above the dusty street her tiny boots were trotting on.
He tried to act casually preparing his cart for getting back on the road when the girl drew up on him.
‘Hey you!’ His brain couldn’t think of something smarter. She didn’t seem to even notice him. He attempted another try.
‘Hey! Girl! You need a ride?’ That seemed like an improvement to him. ‘I-I could take you on my cart – take you with me, I mean, on my cart, I’m no…’ The little woman stopped. She seemed to hesitate. He assumed her father had told her not to talk to strangers.
‘Come on, I won’t harm you. I’m just a merchant man. See?’, and he pointed at the boxes stacked in the back of his cart. Out of the gaps between the boxes peeked the green tops of carrots, lettuce leaves and shreds of cabbages. The man tried to put on a smile he thought inviting but which turned out to just increase the creepiness of his advances. The woman started walking again. He came up behind her.
‘Hey, girl, wait! Where are you going? You have nothing to be afraid of!’ She was walking faster. He adjusted his pace to hers.
‘Girl, don’t just leave an old man at the side of the road. My cart is broken, you know? I need your help!’ He knew that attempt was fruitless, but he couldn’t think of something better. His mind was racing. Dark things had crept inside his mind and were quickly taking control. His breath began to go shorter.
‘Girl!’ He was shouting now. ‘Stop! Don’t try to escape. You’ll just make it harder for you.’ He saw her running, but her short feet were no match for his thick, hairy legs. He caught up on her fast, twenty foot, fifteen. Suddenly she whirled around, stumbling backwards. Her hand was helplessly waving a short sword before her. The man saw tears shimmering in her scowling eyes, slowed down and put on a mad laugh.
‘You don’t even know how to use that, do you?’
He made a leap towards her, which lured her into pulling a hasty blow, accompanied by a thin cry. The man easily stopped the blow with his hand, grabbing her wrist and twisting it. An even louder cry went unheard by the deaf wilderness around them, as her sword dropped to the ground. At the same moment the man used his momentum to knock her over. With a thump and a wailing she landed on her back. His foul breath urged her to vomit, the tears in her eyes clouded her sight, and he spread her arms holding her wrists in a painful twist. Then he got in a dilemma, needing to use his hands to untie his pants. He could not have known releasing her hands would be more of a problem. He would not know either, because he would not know anything anymore, since his head had frozen to stone. His body, being devoid of all neural functions, fell into a series of uncontrolled spasms before his heart stopped beating and he dropped dead on the ground.
Jill wasn’t able to get up for a couple of minutes. After she got herself to control the stream of tears and the sobbing – stupid sobbing, she was stronger than that! – she got on her feet, trembling. The dead body just laid there, deformed and disgusting. The rapists face had not had time to show surprise the moment the life had been taken from it, so it still had the sick look of the depraved on it. She couldn’t stand it, but she was not able to go near the son of a bitch either. She just ran away as quick as she could, but not before she freed the mule, who just stood there until she gave him a push and then trotted away in the grass.
She had to use it. There had not been another way. Only two days since she had left the mountains, left her family, her friends, her teachers, everything for this stupid quest, and she already had been forced to use the Book, the Book which should not be used. Had it been necessary? Had it not been her obligation to endure her fate instead of giving up so easily on her secrets? But the man would have killed her after it, she was sure of it. There had not been another way. Stupid humans! Why should the dwarfs bother to help them keeping in check new monsters when they weren’t even able to keep in check the monsters they already had? They didn’t deserve a librarian. On the other hand, maybe her teachers were right, maybe the librarians were preparing for exactly this. This time, this fallen star. They didn’t know, but what choice did they have? In a way Jill cursed herself for being such a quick learner, for having cheated her way up to the top. Dis should have gotten the job, nobody liked her, and she was the better librarian, she was thorough, disciplined. She wouldn’t have had to use the books, she would have thought of something smarter. But she, Jill, daughter of Bly, had been chosen to go to Algaman, to respond to the council’s requests and travel with longlegs whom she didn’t even know and who didn’t have the slightest clue of what a librarian was.
The fear of the attack had turned into aggression, she noticed, and she had to channel it. She wrote it in her hand, wrote it away, as she had learned for all this time now. She assumed she would have to do it a lot more times in the next days.
Later that day she met a group of nuns from the Order of Tnelis, a small communion devoting their life to silent service. The skilled eye was able to deduce whence they came looking at their clothes, which showed the seal of Cornbridge Abbey, and so in mutual understanding Jill quietly joined their group for the rest of the way to the capital, for that was where the sisters were headed. The nuns wouldn’t ask about Jill’s looks, and if they wondered, they didn’t show. Their creed told them not to discriminate between any kinds of creatures they encountered and which needed their help, and it was known that they didn’t repel a guest at their homes or their groups, as long as he too held the oath of silence as long as he dwelled among them.
Sheltered by the strength of the group and the immunity of the order, Jill had time to unwind and let float by the miles and days until she arrived at Algaman. Her journey so far had been a constant strain on her vigilance, since it had been considered best to send her out all on her own. The whole story had been explained to her in such a fragmentary way that she still struggled with her task. Of course, she was the first of the librarians, but still, why didn’t one of the teachers go to save the day? Her fahter had told her the Faculty could not spare one of their teachers, for the instructions and the studies had to go on, but she could not see the wisdom of sending a forty-five year old just-graduated underage on such a dangerous journey all by herself with nothing but the Book and the knowledge that came with being a librarian – the best, that is. At least there could have been spared a squad of border guards to accompany her to the city – they would have made sure something like that … accident wouldn’t have happened. But then again, she knew she wouldn’t have been able to stand the company of soldiers, hell, of men, for more than five hours.
They made their last camp outside the city walls six miles from the gates in a huge empty rice barn, a victim of the euphoria of the fruitful years when the farmers had become desperate for storage room because of the repeating exuberance of the harvests, resulting in randomly raised barns all across the countryside. They now all stood empty, their decay resembling an illustration of the droughts of the recent years. The nuns made a fire out of the scattered lumber that had fallen from the collapsed roof and pitted walls, and Jill let the mesmerizing dance of the flames fill her mind, until everything else inside her head faded to blackness, just as the world around the fire did, and she didn’t need to notice her mind falling sleep like a sheet of paper soaked into the embrace of the deep blue water.
If it hadn’t been for the friendship between Asher of the Low Council and her father Bly, steward of Lexairanda and therefore Warden of the Library, Jill would have just been too late. The official summon for ‘mercenaries’, the title under which she would have to travel from now on, was rendered just four days ago, which would have made it impossible for any dwarf to answer the call at all. Bly had visited her in her room in the fifth floor of the private caves of the Library, so she had known from the beginning it was something important – otherwise he would just have called her into his chambers.
‘Read this!’ was the only thing he had said handing her an embroidered scroll of paper. There had still been a glance of amazement in his eyes witnessing the speed of her reading, even though he should have been familiar with the librarians’ skills in the written word by now.
‘They’re looking for warriors, not bookworms. Why are you coming to us with this?’ she had asked.
‘I do not come to them. I come to you. As you can see there is no seal on the scroll. This is not an official letter. The council will meet in five days, and if Asher is right and they are going to proclaim a bounty, we will not be able to be there in time. Neither if I put this in court. I am the steward, and I will be held responsible for this, so do not worry. But you have to leave tonight. Alone.’
‘That explains the haste. But not the choice of representation. What has the Library to do with this?’ She hadn’t asked for an answer, for it was clear what her father wanted, but she needed to know if he had thought this through.
‘If this turns out to be a real danger, we will have time and strength to oppose it in sufficient ways. But you of all know where our strength comes from. We need to comprehend this thing – these things – if we want to be able to adjust them. Jill, you can’t be so blind to not see the providence of your life and the position it gained you – gained us. If there has been a reason why I put you away from your family, why I chose this life for you, it has to be this.’
Her superstitious father. It had been his luck she already had decided to go when she had first laid eyes on the letter. But she granted him the satisfaction of persuading, playing the convinced, if it was just to avoid having him longer in her room then utterly necessary.
She did not keep the letter. It wouldn’t have been of any use. An unofficial invitation of a council member found in the hands of a dwarf woman would cause her more trouble than it would help. But she didn’t need to worry about that. She was carrying another letter, this one being as official as it had to be to impress the lower guards and bureaucrats, until she finally stood before Asher himself in a small room inside one of the noble houses littering the richer parts of the city, though not an administrational one.
The counselor, a fat greasy man sweating like a hooker in church was lying on a ridiculously expensive looking canapé and tried to read one of dozens of various scrolls stacking on a round desk beside him, a task which was hardened by his huge belly shortening the reach of his stubby arms. He didn’t bother to sit up when his servant introduced Jill.
‘What is this? They’re sending a girl?’ he exclaimed, suddenly breathing very loudly. ‘Are you sure she’s the real one?’
‘She has got the letter, Master’, the servant said calmly but without looking him in the eye. The counselor impatiently snapped his fingers in the servant’s direction until he was given the paper.
‘Well’, he said when he had finished reading, which to Jill felt like an eternity, ‘it doesn’t make it any less preposterous to me, Milady, even if by the words of your father I am advised to show due respect to you. What did he think? How am I supposed to explain to the council they should accept a little girl-‘
‘A librarian, if you excuse me, my Lord’, Jill interrupted, looking him straight in his small watery eyes. He avoided her stare.
‘Yes yes, I’m sorry all right. But really, how old are you? You look like a teenager to me.’
‘I was born forty-five years ago, my Lord, however counted in the age of men I would still be held as a minor, having not completed my fiftieth year, which would be the twenty first of a human. Nevertheless my rank as the first of my order ensures me of being perfectly capable of providing the services you are looking for.’
‘This I somehow doubt. This quest is not a fieldtrip for nosy students, you know? The last group we sent never came back.’
‘I am aware of that’, she said.
‘Well then, how are you going to protect yourself? Are you trained in any of the fighting arts? For all I know, reading books never got a man – nor a woman – to survive a blow from a sword.’
‘Then my Lord, with all due respect, you do not know much at all. But be assured that I am more than able to take care of myself. Although I can and will not prove to you here and now, I dare to say that if the council will not send me with the rest of your brutes and beasts to the West, there may not be much hope at all for you to fight against whatever is lurking there, if it should decide to come your way.’
She knew her face had changed its colour while she was speaking, and it made her only more furious that she wasn’t able to control herself in front of this stupid man. How her father had come to be friends with this pathetic meatball was beyond her, but then again most of the things her father used to do did not fit into her understanding of reason and sense.
Meanwhile Lord Asher was still trying to decide if he should feel angry or intimidated, and as he was not able to keep those feelings on the inside, his face showed both of them in alternating phases of hideousness. He finally settled for something between wounded pride and careful retreat.
‘Big words for such a small person’ was his first attempt on regaining his upper hand in the discussion. ‘We will see if the Council will believe your high claims when you talk to them tomorrow. However I advise you to reconsider your act, since they won’t give you the advantage of having asked for your assistance in the first place. A good day to you, Miss Jill.’
And with that the audience had come to an end. The servant showed Jill out of the room and house and handed her over to another servant, whose responsibility it was to lead her to her dwellings for the night. It was not far off, though it was at the rim of the nobles quarter, at a guesthouse used for servants and messengers. Her room was still more comfortable than her cell at the Library, so she didn’t complain to the servant, even more since it wasn’t his fault and he had really made an effort not to show too much bewilderment over her appearance. She thanked him and locked the door behind her. She had to think about the next day’s convention.
Asher had his servants inform her of the time she had to be at the doors of the Council. The official hearing of the candidates was set to noon, but the Council was holding a Session in the morning to which – if everything went according to Asher’s plans – she would be summoned. So when the rustling of the city’s awakening wrenched her from her sleep, she washed herself and put on her festive robe, which she had to take with her for just this one occasion, a fact that bothered her sense for efficiency more than it should. It was a black gown falling down to her feet and which was inscribed with vertical columns of silver letters – not the letters of the Book of course – telling the oath of the Librarians. It was written in the older literary language of Orth, so in the end it was more of a decorative pattern for anyone who wasn’t a Librarian. The gown lacked a hood, which forced her to carry her chestnut braid openly, but for the sake of the occasion she opened them and fixed them again to a tight knot on the back of her had. When she was finished, she put on some light shoes she had ordered the evening before. The servant had not managed to choke down a grin when he had realized he had to buy children’s shoes, which she had rewarded with half the money he had spent and a wordless sendoff.
Now she was standing before fifty man leaning over their desks to get a look at that tiny person wearing children’s shoes who had just used the most pleasant words to tell them they could all suck their dicks if they didn’t give her priority in the selection. They didn’t realize she had said this, for in their ears they had only heard the most convincing statement of how valuable the Library of the dwarfs were to their enterprise, but that was how it had been intended by Jill. The part with them sucking their dicks was just recognizable for someone of her own kind able to read the words between the lines, and it was solely for her own amusement.
The most intelligent looking of the men, who had been introduced to her as Alveris, Supreme Chancellor, finally seemed to have something to say.
‘We have heard the words of the dwarf, my fellow counselors, and it seems to me there is no need for further dispute. Is there anyone to disapprove the selection of Miss Jill, daughter of Bly, for the quest of investigating the threats of the west, than he should speak now.’
Some of the men looked at Jill, pending their alternatives until Jill looked them straight in the eye, which forced every single one of them to look down on their desks. The longer the silence lasted, the harder it got for anyone to speak up. Finally the chancellor took the word again.
‘Thereby I declare that the Council has approved of this matter as it has been presented. In the name of the City of Algaman and the land of Narod Rada I, Supreme Chancellor Alveris of the High Council, grant you the honor of serving this country with all you have to offer by traveling to the place of the fallen star in the west and report all there is to know to this institution upon your return. Good luck, Jill of the Librarians.’
The council drowned in a sea of murmurs and whispers that arose with the end of the chancellor’s speech, and she was guided out of the meeting chambers and to a room where the first of the candidates already lingered, waiting for their election.
She didn’t care to take notice of them for now. She had to recover from the dreary talks of men for a minute and sat down on a chair near the wall.
‘Well, at least that wasn’t too hard’ she thought taking out a small book she had carried in a pocket of her dress. It still was an hour until noon, so she decided to used the time to do what she did best: read.