The soldiers bowed and moved off, presumably to other work, while Milmayd led them back up the hill. He seemed to think their mourning period should be short, because he started questioning Edberene on the products of Vengrand as soon as the houses shielded them from the river.
He said things like, “The wool from our Clans is of superior quality, but for the days of feasts and ceremonies, we are in dire need of the beautiful silk I know we have bought on occasion from you. The High Priest himself is almost walking in scraps and rags.”
And mother replied, “The summer is coming soon. We will be harvesting silk when the sun has passed her greatest height. When will the Clans be showing their yearlings and foals?”
Esefel found herself only halfway paying attention. Grandfather would have wanted her to listen and learn, but right now her only thoughts were on him. She stroked the scroll, absentmindedly, but felt no desire to open it yet. Eyes, not so fresh, were on the cobble stones in front of her feet, and so she suddenly looked up – and found no trace of mother or the priest.
She froze, still as a fawn, letting her ears search for familiar sounds.
The brick houses with their labyrinthian layout twisted the noises of the town, and for a moment she thought she heard mother’s snow crisp voice, but running around the corner led the young elf nowhere. Esefel looked around, desperate for some familiar sights, some landmark that she could aim for, but she was in a walled garden she had never seen before, with tall portals in every direction, all covered with the red-green new leaves of climbing ivy.
One of the portals led to a set of stairs leading upwards, and she tried that one, on the assumption that if she walked up and up, she would end up by the upper river, above the falls. Maybe mother would look for her there.
Some people passed her, some stared at her, some pointed and muttered. Her ears did not pick up hostility, but the strange accents and faces and clothes were translated in her mind through fear, and she didn’t dare approach any of them. Grandfather would have told her to be curious, but she couldn’t. Not now. Not yet.
The stairs ended in a covered passageway, the red brick roof doing nothing to shade her from the slanting evening sun peering through the open archways along it. Outside the arches was a garden planted with cypress and grave stones. Esefel stared at them for a moment, then hurried onwards, her stomach knotted, fists clenched and tears blinding.
And so she barely noticed that she had ended up fully indoors, before her footsteps started echoing under vaulted ceilings, and moist air hung still around her. She stopped and looked around. The chambers here were bare. At least she had not wandered into someone’s home. That was good. And there were still stairs leading upwards. That was good too, but she suspected she was now in the temple proper, so she walked more cautiously. She didn’t know who she might meet – or what sacred places she might stumble on and offend.
After a long walk through corridors, more stairs, chambers decked in wall hangings and murals, and something she hoped was a display of artficial bones and skulls, she came on a broad staircase leading up to a set of double oaken doors. The doors were twice as tall as grandfather, bound by iron hinges, and the wood almost black with age. The floor was dusty, and the windows facing the staircase showed the dark blue of night putting out the evening pinks. Stars were coming out, and she wondered if mother was looking for her. It did not feel like she would be on the other side of this forbidding portal, and yet the portal tugged at her, like a doorway to another world. Esefel reached for the great ring that was the latch, and pulled. With a creak, the door opened into darkness and musty smells. Although the stars provided little light, she sensed the room was gigantic – and she sensed something in there that she could not describe with eyes or ears or touch. It was a feeling of might.
After a few moments there was light. In the center of the ceiling was a dome of stone arches and glass, letting through the stars and the rising moons. Esefel looked around in awe.
Shelves after shelves lined the walls and divided the room. They were filled with dust, mostly, but also scrolls, scrolls, books and scrolls. Cracking, dusty, mildewed. Large, small, tiny. Some made of calf skin vellum, some of grass papyrus, some carved from stone or burned in clay. She tried picking up a scroll, but it was too brittle and separated under her fingers.
She found a book instead, carefully lifting it down to the floor, carefully opened the latch on the bindings, even more carefully, with both hands, opening it to the first page.
Reading she had learned, and the room was getting brighter in the moonlight, moment by moment, but this was not a language or lettering she had ever seen. The letters were angular, decorated with straight strokes of gold and green and purple, jewels set in the bindings, and the pages cut to perfect squares. Esefel wished she could read the letters and understand. She sighed, closed it with equal care, and returned it to the shelf.
The next one was in the elven script, and although there was an unfamiliar accent and spelling to the words, she was able to decipher the first page at least. It was a poets depiction of the last war, and Esefel found herself singing along to the familiar yet strange version of a song she knew.
Tirigwen was dancing there
Beyond the lily leaves
A crown of silver was her hair
Beneath the oaken eaves
Eyes of light and skin of pearl
And stars upon her sleeves
“You have a very sweet voice, o elf maid,” said a gruff human voice.
Esefel jumped at the interruption and only barely stopped herself from slamming the precious book shut.
“Sir,” she said, “my apologies. I found this and…”
A man shuffled into the light from the dome, where the moon highlighted deep furrows of age, and turned the blood red robes a pale and washed out pink. He was almost bald and the moon reflected in his scalp. Esefel looked at him with wonder, and rose.
“You are an old human,” she said.
“And you are a young elf,” he replied. “Although I doubt we are far apart in true age. Welcome to my library.”
She stared around in awe. “All this is yours? All these books? Can you read them all?” Was he not much older than her – and still knew so much more?
He snorted, “I wish. I am more a caretaker and collector. Though the Pontiff does not meddle, so it is mine to do with as I wish for the most part. But I have read all that I can read, and attempted to decipher even more.”
“Like this one?” She pointed at the book with the angular letters.
“That is dwarf runes. I can read those. It is a book from the third dynasty of the master forger Irram. Mostly lineages and such. The one you have here is a bit more fanciful. Have you good knowledge of the song of Tirigwen and Vetselen?”
“I have sung it many times. Tirigwen came from Rand Vengvet where I live. My name is Esefel.”
“A lady of the Iris-flower from The realm of Flowering Trees, I see. Come, shall I give you a tour, Esefel?”
Esefel remembered mother, but there was something pulling her inside the library, and she decided mother could wait. They were staying the night, anyway. What could go amiss from exploring this place of wonder?
He led her first into an office with a carved desk of apple wood, where he grabbed a lamp from a hook on the wall.
“Mother told me humans don’t see well.”
He cracked a faint smile. “By elven standards, no. Nobody have your eyes and ears – except perhaps the demons.”
Demons. They were a far off legend, a tale that grandfather had told her by dim lights under dark clouds. She swallowed. “Demons can see like us?”
“There are rumours. I have never seen one, but the soldiers swear they have the eyes of cats.”
“You are not a soldier then. Maybe mother would like you.”
“I fight only for the funding of my poor, decrepit library. It is a war of words and wills only. Does your mother approve of that?”
Esefel had to think about it for a moment. “I’m not sure. She shies from arguments, but I do not think she will let Milmayd dictate her trades to her.”
“Then I suspect she is more of a warrior than she will admit. His Grace is fond of dictating.”
While they were talking, the librarian showed her the great room. He pointed out old books, new books, strange books – and books of which he had several copies. He lamented the brittle scrolls and wondered how to preserve them, and praised the foresight of one author who had written a bestiary in three languages. Esefel walked beside him, drinking in every word, every sight, every tome.
And then she stopped. The might was right here.
To be continued…