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When I was a child, I’d once done something that upset my parents. What that something was is long lost, a loss I would never have expected given the intensity of my memories of what followed. I’d been beaten before, to the point of leaving bruises that lasted for more than a week, but this time was different; this time was the first time they’d broken bones.
You never forget your first time.
A broken bone is a strange thing. As it happens, the intensity of the pain is unlike anything else you’ve ever felt—at least if you’re like most, and lucky enough never to have been hurt that badly. The pain ebbs, replaced by something less pleasant: a nausea comes in the wake of that pain, and a curious disorientation or sense of unreality. The surgeons tell me it’s your mind providing the detachment you need to ignore the damage and escape whatever broke your bone—a simple survival reflex. Of course, some things you can escape more easily than others. The pain returns, and it lingers.
Now, many miles and years away from that memory, I felt many of the same sensations. The pain was a bright but fading memory, but the nausea still lingered and the disorientation wasn’t helped by the fact that none of my body parts occupied the positions I’d grown to expect them to occupy. It was another day before my aches and pains faded enough that I could rise unassisted from my bed; I’ll spare you the unpleasant and embarrassing details of failing to cope with certain daily necessities.
Orgrim brought me food now and again, and new clothing, and helped with those other necessities before leaving me to lie in peace. I was in my own room, and for the first time, I noticed how small and cluttered it was. The new me must have been almost six feet tall, a giant among men, and my chamber had not been over-large even for the dwarf I’d once been. I was weak from my ordeal, and my memories of the nightmare were growing fainter. All that remained clear was a lurking feeling that something more than passing strange had happened, something both horrible and wonderful.
Yet I couldn’t place my finger on what had happened and why it disturbed me so much more than any other nightmare.
More immediately important, though, was the absence of the hard-won grace and coordination that had been mine before my transformation, now replaced with an adolescent’s bumbling awkwardness. This worried me out of all proportion to its significance, and Orgrim was hard put to convince me I would adjust to my new body in time. While my mentor was away, I stayed closeted in my room, forcing myself past the pain, moving and stretching until at last the pain grew dull, the stiffness faded, and I became confident in my movements. I was aware my absence from Court had been noted, yet this didn’t bother me as much as you’d expect. Clearly, I couldn’t simply return and pick up my life where I’d left off.
My lute helped in learning the ways of my new body, for I’d acquired some small skill with it in my earlier incarnation, and this skill returned with satisfying speed. In fact, with my much larger fingers, I was finally able to play chords that had previously been painful to reach. My playing had acquired a wild note, but I could attribute this to my excitement and the tension of awaiting Orgrim’s return. Those times he visited me, bearing food and wash water and carrying away the chamber pot, he encouraged me on my progress and indicated that I would improve still more if I relaxed my conscious control of my body and let it take care of itself. He was right, of course, though there was an awkwardness in doing so, almost as if someone else was pulling the strings that moved my limbs. But that feeling faded once I no longer concentrated so hard on what my body was doing and I soon gloried in the return of deftness to my movements. On the third day, I was confident enough to go out on my own.
Entering the hallway outside my door without looking, I ran into a serving maid hurrying along on her business. I reached out to grasp her arm and keep her from falling, pleased at my success and the ease with which I held her up until she got her feet beneath her once again. I recognized her as one of the women who had taunted me before, but I felt too good now to bear her a grudge. Indeed, the smile she turned upon me became open and appreciative, and held a hint of promise as her eyes passed over my new body.
I decided I was going to like my new life.
I was readying myself to start up an innocent little conversation with her, when her eyes widened and she pulled free from my grip and fled. Orgrim had appeared as if from nowhere, frowning as had become his wont of late. “I thought I had instructed you to keep to your room?”
I smiled warmly, willing enough to forego promised pleasures for the moment; after all, I had a lifetime of such things ahead of me. “Not exactly. You said to remain there until I felt well enough to leave. I do, and there are things I would rather try than remain confined in that dark cell. I’ve a fancy...”
“I imagine you do,” he interrupted, raising a skeptical eyebrow and thrusting his chin in the direction of the departed woman. “But I think you would be wise to remember a few things first. For one, there is the matter of your name.”
“My name? What about it?”
“Surely you have not failed to notice that you are no longer the man you once were? Should you go about naming yourself Morley, people will begin to ask unpleasant questions about the disappearance of a certain dwarf. Questions neither of us would be pleased to answer.”
“You said ‘a few things’.” My smile had faded as some of the sober realities of my new life began to intrude on my euphoria. “What else must I be wary of?”
“Familiarity with those who knew you before.” His look of distaste deepened. “Such as that woman, for instance. Those you knew before may recognize you from certain habits, including your methods of expressing yourself, the more so should you persist in behaving as if you know them. And let us not forget the ancient proscription against letting a witch live; you would be doing me a grave discourtesy if you made others suspect my existence by revealing your transformation.” As dwarves did not suddenly become normal solely by thinking virtuous thoughts, this was a serious risk indeed. “Finally, there is payment for the services I have done you.”
“Ask, and if it is within my power to give you, I shall.” At the back of my mind, there was only a slight hesitation, buried swiftly beneath a rising wave of gratitude.
“Indeed you shall,” he said. Then, with a visible effort, the patient wisdom returned. “Morley, please do not misunderstand me. I do not own you despite the great favor I did you. But there are many tasks that I must accomplish in the upcoming months, some of which I cannot perform myself. I will need your assistance, and as you are without employment, I think we can come to some accommodation.”
“Aye, there’s that,” I mused. “More importantly, I would not have you feel I’m ungrateful. Truly, friend, you’ve helped me more than I can express with words alone. In return, I shall help you as best I can.”
At that, he smiled. Reaching inside his robes, he produced a small but weighty leathern bag that clinked as he dropped it into my palm. “For living expenses. I have a task for you, though it will be perhaps an hour before you can begin. Meet me in front of the library at that time, and I shall give you appropriate instructions.”
We shook hands to seal our partnership, and I noted with pleasure the strength of my grip, more than the equal of his own firm handshake. Afterwards, I set off down the corridor. I wasn’t sure at first where I was headed, but I thought about it as I walked, and decided to pay a visit to Bram. His offer of a formal bond between us had sounded attractive, and now that I would no longer be a burden on him, it was an offer I could more easily accept. The notion of treating Bram as an equal—and believing it—and the chance of someday attaining the stature and peace he had found warmed me. That easily, I cast aside Orgrim’s warnings about falling into familiar patterns, certain that my friend and protector could pose no danger.
I nodded at the guards on my way out of the building, and they nodded back, politely but with no sign of recognition. That amused me, but I had little time if I was to visit my friend and still reach the library in time to meet Orgrim. I arrived at Bram’s house much sooner than I’d expected, so distracted by my newfound speed and the alacrity with which people moved out of my path that I little heeded the trip itself. A knock on the barred gate produced no immediate response, so I settled myself to wait. Shortly, there came a grating as the viewing slit slid open, and a pair of wary eyes appeared.
James’ voice came from behind the thick wood. “Good day, Sir. How may I be of service?”
I cleared my throat, suddenly awkward. James’ eyes narrowed when I hesitated. “I’m here to see Bram, James.”
It was plain that he was trying to place me, for his brow furrowed in concentration and once more his eyes swept over me. “I’m afraid I was not told to expect your visit, Sir...?”
“Mor... Modred,” I improvised.
“... Modred,” he continued. “Are you perhaps an old friend of the master’s?”
“Not exactly,” I sidestepped the question. “More... a friend of a friend. Is your master in at present?”
James seemed caught between the urge to invite me in and natural caution at the sudden arrival of an unanticipated stranger on his doorstep. He was a good man, his youth notwithstanding. “Umm. No, Modred—Milord and Milady have gone for a walk. If you would tell me where you are staying, I can send for you when he returns.” Caution had won out over hospitality.
I repressed a grin. “No, that won’t be necessary. He doesn’t know me, so you’d just confuse him. Let’s say I’ll return some other time and pay him a visit.”
“Very good, Sir. Have a pleasant day.” I nodded to him, feeling some trepidation at his obvious concern and his poorly concealed efforts to memorize my face as we parted. Orgrim’s advice seemed that much more sensible now that I’d come up hard against one of the realities of my changed circumstances. I’d avoided thinking things through thus far, and that luxury could not last much longer. Heaving a sigh so heavy that a passing merchant shot me a sharp look, I turned my steps towards the library. I estimated I had several minutes remaining before my meeting with Orgrim, but wanted to take no chances about arriving late and raising his wrath again. He’d placed considerable importance on the task he was to set me, and that made it important for me as well.
Ankur’s library was an imposing building made from piled blocks of neutral-brown stone fitted together seamlessly without the aid of mortar. It was unornamented to the point of drabness—to the point you would pass it by without a second thought were you not seeking it. I waited by the main entrance, noting as I did how most Ankurites ignored it in just that way. Not surprising, given how few people could read anything more than the few words or signs necessary for their livelihood. Even I, who had learned to read each winter with the other foresters and who had read every scrap of paper or parchment that came within reach, had never spent any time here, and I was looking forward to seeing just what the building held now that I—however temporarily—had no formal responsibilities to occupy my days. It was as I speculated thus that Orgrim arrived behind me, as silent in his approach as he’d been on each previous meeting.
“To business,” he exclaimed, the sudden sound of his voice making me start with surprise. “The task I have set you is a simple one, Morley... or should I say Modred?” He smiled coldly at the surprise in my eyes. “Ah, have you forgotten so soon that I am a wizard, and that wizards have ways of obtaining information that are denied to common men?” He smiled his gentle smile, removing some of the sting. “I need you to enter the library for me and retrieve one or two items.” He handed me a scrap of parchment with two titles upon it. “Take this,” he continued, handing me my lute, which I’d not noticed he was carrying, “and inform the librarian you are a traveling minstrel who seeks to consult certain ancient texts so you may more accurately compose a ballad on the days before the Exodus.”
“Before we came to our new lands? A good excuse, for ballads of those days have been popular ever since the King took such an interest in them after the war with Amelior. But there’s one small flaw in your plan, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
“And what might that be?” His gaze hardened, though the calm smile never faded.
“You said you would need me to retrieve the texts for you, which I assume means that you want them removed from the library. Yet your proposed excuse says only that I want to consult the texts. Were it me, I would see no reason to let a stranger walk away with treasures that may be older than Ankur itself.”
“Your wit does you credit, but I was not yet done explaining.” From within his cloak he removed a medium-sized hemp sack. “In here you will find two scrolls. Spend some time consulting the ones I have sent you for, then exchange them for the ones in the sack when no one is watching.”
“That should be simple enough. But I find myself full of questions today. Why do you need me for such a simple task? Could you not simply conjure the books out of the library, with none the wiser?”
Orgrim sighed, assuming a look of exasperated patience. “Modred, as you now understand, my existence in Ankur must remain unsuspected at this time. As for less mundane means, there are certain intricacies involved in any magic, and while it is simple enough in principle to scry out the location of the books, removing them through those thick stone walls poses more of a challenge. One well within my means to surmount, as it happens, but there are more important things for me to spend my energies on. Moreover, any such magic would leave my signature behind for all to see.”
“Maybe to another wizard, but to a librarian?” I paused in thought. “Ah. I hadn’t considered the possibility that you might have a colleague... or a rival.” The thought was both exciting and more than a little alarming.
“Quite so. There are certain signs that suggest I am not as alone in this town as one might suspect. Now enough of your questions. I have set you a simple task, and it is time you proceeded. Cross the librarian’s palms with a few coins should she prove obstinate—there’s a spell even you should be able to manage! Just one thing: under no circumstances must you make a fuss or do anything to attract attention to yourself and cause your visit to be remembered with suspicion. If it appears you can’t obtain the scrolls without making yourself memorable to everyone in the library, leave at once. There remain other mundane ways to obtain the scrolls should the open approach fail.”
I quirked a grin at him, and bowed deeply enough for my still-developing balance to come into question and turn the bow half-mocking before I recovered. Ignoring his amusement, I turned on my heel and entered the library. I half-expected to be stopped by guards or at least to encounter some physical barrier to my entry, but evidently there was insufficient interest in books among Ankurites to make these particular treasures worthy of theft. In fact, the only obstacle was the thick rug that caught my oversized feet and sent me sprawling. I managed the fall well enough to avoid crushing my lute, but the attention of the old woman dusting the shelves and of the two scholars conferring at a low table was not so easily evaded. When I met the eyes of the scholars, challenge in my eyes, their amused contempt changed to solicitous looks. I paused to re-examine my instrument for damage, then got to my feet as the woman came to join me.
“I trust you are undamaged, young man?” she inquired, failing to hide her amusement.
I smiled. “Aye, apart from my wounded dignity, though it would appear I’ve come seeking forbidden knowledge your library is loath to yield.” Her smile broadened. “Thank you for your concern.” I swung my lute around to my back, careful to not misjudge distances and cause another minor disaster, then dusted myself off. As I did, I took the opportunity to look around me. The inside of the library was as plain as its exterior had suggested: a high, vaulted ceiling criss-crossed by stone arches and illuminated by a combination of slim, thickly glazed windows at the roof and man-tall, arm-thick candles in wrought-iron stands in recesses all about the walls. Deep stone shelves rose to the ceiling, and there were ladders here and there against the wall to facilitate access to the upper shelves. Two long tables occupied the center of the room, each piled high with scrolls and surprising numbers of the bound books that had begun to appear with increasing frequency. The two scholars had gone back to their discussion, poking at various scrolls now and then as if using them to prove some obscure point.
“Can I help you in some way?” The librarian flipped her feather duster, eager to get back to her work.
I returned my attention to her. “You certainly can. I am in the process of preparing a ballad of the old days in honor of the King. Unlike my colleagues, I believe in first learning something about my subject, and that’s why I’m here. I was advised that you had in your possession two old scrolls.” I had palmed Orgrim’s scrap of paper while we talked, and presented it to her with a flourish.
“You’re sure we have these?” Her brows knit in puzzlement. “If we do, they’re old indeed. I can’t remember ever having had a request for them.”
“I have it on excellent authority they are here.” I spoke those words glibly, then realized that I had no response ready if she asked for the name of that particular authority; mentioning Orgrim’s name would have been unwise, and I knew no other name I could invoke without requiring the construction of a dangerous chain of lies.
But she was more interested in my choice of books than in learning who had recommended them. “Bide a while here while I go seek them.”
I watched in some astonishment as the librarian wandered, preoccupied, from one row of shelves to the next, lips moving as if thinking aloud. I’d always assumed there would be some simple method of finding and retrieving texts, but it proved an unjustified assumption; this was still a profession in which masters passed obscure lore to apprentices, such as the location of prize texts, rather than making the information available to anyone who asked. I swung my lute off my shoulder, sat at one of the low chairs, and began tuning, falling into the calm that simple activity always evoked. A glare from the two scholars, who I’d been watching with some interest as my fingers followed familiar paths without my guidance, interrupted me.
“Is there a problem, wise Sirs?”
“This is a library, not the King’s audience chamber. Be silent. If you must practice your trade, do it elsewhere.”
Surprised by his vehemence, I leaned the lute against the table, not wanting to dislodge any of the scrolls, and turned to examine the contents of my sack. Orgrim had told me there would be two scrolls inside, and it was as he’d promised. Each one had an old, musty smell to it and felt dry and brittle to my probing fingers. Opening the mouth of the sack just wide enough to admit some light, I craned my neck in a vain attempt to see the titles on the scrolls. This occupied me a brief time, and when I looked up from my efforts, the librarian was perched atop one ladder, several scrolls tucked under her arm as she craned her neck to read the titles of others. As I watched, she pursed her lips in disapproval and replaced the scrolls under her arm on the shelf.
Having done so, she descended cautiously and crossed the room to my table. “I must apologize, but my search is taking longer than I’d anticipated. I’ve unearthed several treasures whose existence I’d forgotten, but not the particular ones you were seeking. I’m afraid that the task may take some time, particularly given that those two gentlemen have provided me an afternoon’s work replacing the scrolls they’ve already consulted.”
I nodded sympathetically, and eased a coin from my pouch. “Most inconsiderate of them. Nonetheless, my patron was most insistent that I create the best song that was within my resources.” I grasped her wrinkled hand and slipped the coin into it. “I would be more than grateful if you could spare the time.” I maintained a gentle pressure on her hand, smiled as warmly as I could at her, and watched with some pleasure as she blushed and looked away.
“I’ll see what I can do, Sir. Return tomorrow and I’ll have the scrolls for you.” She pulled her hand from my grasp, and I let her, enjoying the opportunity to play this game.
Outside, Orgrim waited impatiently by the door. “You have the scrolls?”
“No. The librarian could not find them, though she promised she’d have them by tomorrow morning.” His look hardened. “You seem to feel some urgency about—ahem—borrowing these old texts. I’m curious why they’re so important.”
He frowned, and I was unsure whether the displeasure was at my impudence or my failure in this first task. “Let me say only that the scrolls speak of events around the time of the Exodus. They provide important clues to the nature of the magical cataclysm that set us to fleeing the old lands. Because the practice of magic has been proscribed since before our departure, honing one’s mystical skills is next to impossible without a free exchange of knowledge. For a scholar like me, the information in those old scrolls provides precious clues about the nature of magic.”
I pursed my lips, realizing the depth of my ignorance. “Is it wise to pry into such matters? What destroyed our old lands might also threaten the new.”
Orgrim’s frown deepened and his gaze hardened. “Don’t presume to provide guidance on something you cannot understand. Some of us have learned the lessons of the past, Modred.”
I averted my eyes, not liking the power in that look any better despite increasing practice, and wondering about the sense of something left unsaid. Changing the subject seemed the wisest course. “Point taken. In the meantime, what is our course of action?”
“Obtaining the scrolls tomorrow would not delay my plans, and there are other things I must accomplish today. Very well. Spend the remainder of the day however you would, though I caution you to keep well away from those who once knew you. I shall wake you early tomorrow so we can proceed once more to the library.”
He strode away into the crowd, brisk strides belying his aged, careworn appearance reminding me of the youthful black-haired man he’d become in the nightmare that preceded my transformation. Those memories still bothered me, though in the clear light of day, they seemed a trivial thing. Surely such an experience as I’d undergone would leave any man with bad dreams for a few nights? I was enjoying my new body far too much to question my good fortune, but that did not stop me from reflecting upon what Orgrim had said—and had left unsaid—as well as upon his reaction to my questions. Perhaps some reading of my own would be in order. No one who knew me would be in the library, and there was the enticing prospect of feeding my curiosity and easing my ignorance somewhat.
The more I thought of what had happened the past few days, the more I felt sure I could no longer afford that ignorance.
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