Thursday, 29 December 2016

(Novel) Ancora Tu

The world is changing. The traditional guardians of the world are being displaced by smart phones and eBooks. In the final days of the great libraries, two very different librarians confront the future. 

In Betty's library, some of the books are awakening
In the dark of night they stalk their prey
And, as they consume other books
The stories within twist and turn
And the world starts to change




This story was written in the G+ stream, a strong collaborative space and the best place in the world to write.


You can read the story here for free:
1. in book form: PDF book * ; or
2. here (just scroll down).

An audio book and print version are in preparation
* to get access to the PDF book you will need to log into Google Drive (which will ordinarily be an automatic process if you have a G+ account) 


Copyright 2016 Peter Quinton, Published by Peter Quinton




The first chapter of the audio book is published here.  The audio book has been prepared by +CR Bravo (an artist living in Illinois, publishing artwork and other fun stuff at:  https://plus.google.com/u/0/+CRBravo/posts)







The Lost City of Ancora Tu

In Betty's library there is a book that was once called The Lost City of Ancora Tu. It was originally about a Candle Maker, Bruce the Bold, Graham the Furrier, Ivan the Dentist, Stang of the Amazons and a baby dragon. But now it is about others: the portals of power and guardians of the Universe.



Part 1: Betty

Walking on the other side of the World

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the White Guardian of the World stirred.

Beset with the problems of the world; Betty had started to walk back to the library. She stopped and raised her head into the air, wondering.

She had gone home for a meal. Despite an early plan, it ended up consisting of last night's left overs. To help even the score, Betty had poured herself half a glass of red wine.

Locking the door behind her, she left her empty house and braved the dark night. The pavement was dark and uneven, but this was her part of town and she walked with a measured step. Through the crisp night air and sounds of the forest edge came the sounds of the monastery preparing for evening prayer.

At the bottom of Hill Drive she stopped and looked up the gentle rise. Trudging up towards the town center, her mind drifted to the events of the day: a fall of snow, the problem of Belmore's (she tightened her mouth, was that his real name?) overdue books and Genny’s urgent call. The path was cold and slippery in reflected light. But she had walked this way for thirty years and knew the places to avoid.

Betty wondered if the little town (and the world for that matter) around her understood the danger swirling around them. She thought to herself, "People have no idea about what librarians do. There is no real recognition."

But, then again, maybe that is for the best.

Betty finished climbing Hill Drive, and paused briefly to catch her breath before turning onto Main Street. The pavement was now illuminated by the occasional passing car. Free of the risk of bobcats or lost dogs, Betty slowed to savor the sounds of each house settling in for the night: she smelled dinner being cooked in the dozen houses she passed, the distinct smell of fire boxes or furnaces heating and a hundred other different sounds of other lives. Unbidden, she thought, "Homes alive with families."

Street lamps now lit the path, as she walked the final block to the town-hall and library buildings. Betty saw him sitting in his car. The late model car had its top drawn back, despite the cold. It was parked carelessly outside the only club in town. She thought, "An edgy club, full of young women and old men".

Closer, a passing car brightened his face. Betty thought to herself, “Genny’s problem, Bruce.”

He oozed wealth. The tan started in his sparse cropped hair, running down a perfect face to his sharp chin and then down lower into the black hair on his chest. The tan might have gone further but, if so, was hidden behind a soft crisp shirt.

He leaned back into the seat, one hand on the driving wheel, the other holding a mobile to his ear talking loudly, not caring who might be hearing. A heavy gold watch on his left hand caught Betty’s eye.

"Listen to me!" He spat out each word. He was relishing the sound of his voice, a cruel smile playing on his face. A face half in darkness and obscured by stubble. A voice brash and ugly.

"No! I do not care what you think." He paused, letting shadows slip into his words.

"Tell her this from me. She will do it without any more complaints or arguments. I do not have to buy her agreement. She gets nothing else."

Then his face twisted and his smile disappeared.

"Remind her where she came from."

Then silence, just the sound of Betty’s footsteps on the pavement as she walked past, trying not to catch his eye. Past a foul stench in the air, the smell of a hairdressing salon gone wrong, burning flesh and exhaust fumes, the sick sweet smell of dissolution.

She resisted the urge to run the last few steps to the staff entrance to the library. In the dark, she fumbled keys, her usual practiced entry delayed. Finally inside, she relocked the door and stood awhile in the darkness, listening to the muffled sounds outside. She knew that man but, obviously, she thought, not that well. She wondered how Genny had got caught up with him.

She caught her breath and slowly turned her hearing to the quiet subtle sounds of the library itself.

In Betty's Library, most of the books got along with each other.

Many aged peacefully together, greying slowly as decades of dust collected, untroubled by the politics of the day, the threat of global warming or the pressures facing the librarians as technology tightened its grip.

Other books shuffled uneasily on their shelves, demanding attention or affection. Betty walked down the non-fiction aisle, pausing to gently push one of the books back into conformity. After decades of neglect Volume II of Winston Churchill’s “History of the English Speaking People” had started to emanate a discernible air of smouldering resentment.

Others sat in quiet misery, unloved at inception, ignored at apogee and discarded in old age. Betty ran her hand over an old collection of the Forsyte Saga, untouched save by her hands the last twenty years. She quietly reassured them by a gentle touch of the eye that their time would come again.

She took a couple of steps away, before the awful thought that she was fast running out of space. Hard decisions would need to be taken to accommodate more of those dratted public computers. By and large, these are commonplace problems for all librarians, indeed, all book owners. In another time, perhaps the unloved would have been re-purposed on the floors of bird cages or recycled through church bazaars. Betty shook her head, and said aloud, "But we are civilized people and don’t do this sort of thing anymore."

Her voice echoed through the book cases, momentarily there was a soft shuffle of books as they looked anxiously towards her.

Her voice faded into the walls, and she listened again.

Some of her books crackled with their own potential. They pulled her back to them, time and time again, to taste the power swirling within: Snorre Sturlason’s Heimskringla, the Poetic Edda, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (Betty added quietly, with and without Fitzgerald), the Gnostic Gospels, the Institutes of Justinian, Tolkien’s Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, a small collection of T’ang poetry, Antoine De Saint Exupery’s Le Petit Prince, Lord John Julius Norwich’s Byzantium, Mark Twain’s Essays and Bryce Courtenay’s Matthew Flinders’ Cat.

She felt herself grow a little distant from the real world each time she picked up one of those:

“But helpless Pieces of the Game He plays
Upon this Chequer-board of Nights and Days;
Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet he lays.” – Khayyam

By and large, these books hold known risks for all librarians. Touching the covers of some of these books can transport you through time and space in the blink of an eye. "Do you wit more, or how?" Betty thought, "Every so often, one of us does not come back. But, if you keep focused, the chances are good."

But to an experienced librarian like Betty, these are not the troublesome books. Librarians are trained to keep order in the midst of chaos, and can balance one fearsome book against another. "That one gave you nightmares? Read this to calm your nerves."

But for a moment she felt a touch of fear and shivered. Within some libraries, there are some books of power that cannot be tamed.

The Library

Betty walked to her desk, past rows of darkened library shelves. The musty warmth of the building usually exuded calm but tonight motes of dust swirled in winds of uncertainty. Watching her every move, the books were on edge.

Betty reached her desk and sat, with a sigh, in her leather seat. She sat for a moment, letting herself warm against the outside cold. From here she could see every nook and cranny of the lower library. She took off her scarf and walking glasses. Light from the central fireplace played over her face, making her look younger and a little dangerous.

She placed her library keys in the top drawer and withdrew a small candy bar she had secreted there for moments like this. With a sudden move, she whisked a grain of dust off the desk. It was too much for some of the books; involuntarily, Gore Vidal’s ‘Empire’ crashed to the floor. Betty was there in seconds, carefully restoring it to its home and calming its neighbors with a gentle touch. She regained her seat, and an expectant shuffling came from the shelves.

It was the early evening. The library was closed over the dinner break because of the latest funding cutback. Apart from Betty, the books, and the fire, the library was empty until the reading group was due to meet in an hour. No one would interfere with her.

Betty turned her attention to the three books she had placed on her desk earlier. They glared back at her.

Some of her books had developed bad habits. Betty was sure that one, or more, of these three, were terrorizing the other books; callously selecting victims in daylight and hunting them down without mercy by night. When the lights dimmed, her library became a battlefield. One, or more, of the suspects before her were consuming other hapless books in her library. And, as all senior librarians know, as books eat other books, they grow. As they grow, the stories within them twist and reshape, and the world outside starts to change.

Betty knew that this had to stop. Right now. But... Betty hesitated. She did not have incontrovertible evidence. Not evidence that would stand up in a superior court of law. Perhaps though enough to convince the local authorities. Betty sighed with the weight of responsibility and murmured. "Within this place, I am judge and jury." Burning wood crackled in the fireplace spilling light into the suddenly silent library. She added darkly, “And executioner.”

Three books were facing her inquisition. In the half light of the library, the three suspects sat sullenly. Firelight picked out their names like lightning in the night sky. Bright enough to illuminate the light chains preventing escape and holding them shut.

The first, Kormac’s Saga was an old Norse story of love gone wrong. Betty approved of love, especially the sort of abstract love that did not involve smelly socks, elbows and being woken by snores in the middle of the night. She strongly disapproved of love gone wrong and had a bad feeling about this book. She corrected herself. No, it was not just her feelings; this book had been found on the wrong shelf.

The second, The Killing of History had known form, having previously been found with page 87 of an account of another book (an enthusiastic apology for the conquest of the Americas) in its maw. The other book was still missing, notionally on the overdue list for Belmore. Betty frowned, fighting to keep focus and trying not drift back into her decade-long struggle with that man. She pushed him back into that part of her mind cloaked by a deceptive smile but harboring a sharp remembrance of every overdue infraction in the town for the past four decades.

Betty had long known about the carnivorous predisposition of academic tomes. She even accepted, to a point, the "dog eat dog" world of academic in-fighting. "Part of the cycle of life," she would explain to junior librarians. Betty nodded her head. But, then she shook her head, that part should happen outside her library.

The third, The Lost City of Ancora Tu was an unlikely suspect. A dull story about dragon eggs, candle makers and biker chicks. It was usually housed a little way from the main shelves in the area reserved for young adults and their electric demons. Betty’s face tightened, and firelight caught her cheek. Sharp shadows flickered over her face. She was not about to have the wool pulled over her eyes. She did not come down in the last rainstorm. This book was attracting the attention of an unsavory category of reader. Betty had heard reports and then seen with her very own eyes strange people paying the furtive library visits to examine the book. She shook her head; you can’t trust anything these days.

Betty was sure that one, or more, of these troublesome books, were the cause of discord late in the night. She felt for the other books in her care. She imagined their terror and the brief sounds of a struggle followed by a sigh. Not all the work of the tired old mouser curled up next to the fire flickering in the reading room. It was too easy to blame all on the young folk who came into her domain, but even they could not be blamed for the horrors stalking her shelves. But more than the loss of those poor innocent books, she feared how the world outside was changing as the stalkers fed.

Betty murmured grimly, "In the past, these are the books that might have been burnt or pulped. But we are civilized people and don’t do this sort of thing anymore."

There was the soft shuffle of books turning anxiously towards her, all too well aware of the terrible internal struggle their librarian was facing. Alone.

Suddenly, Betty reached across her desk and switched her desk lamp on, shining a spotlight onto the first troublesome book. It would have shied away from the sudden bright light save she already had its spine immobilized by one of those complex secret techniques, known only to senior librarians.

With a practiced move, she brought the book closer, her mouth tight as she undid some of the chains. The first book, Kormac’s Saga. A suspect, but also the subject of this evening's book reading. She would have to deal with this one first.

She said to the book in a stern tone, "You better behave tonight. Or I will reconsider library policy on donations to the church bazaar."

She let the words sink in, feeling a sudden surge of heat on the ancient leather cover. She waited for it to cool and dim.

Once again Betty wondered if the little town around her understood the danger in their midst. She thought to herself, "They have no idea. They believe that the world will do fine without librarians.” She could not conceive of a world without librarians, those guardians who selflessly organize knowledge and bring balance into the world. “How wrong they are."

And then she broke at least four of the library rules on the entrance wall, noisily eating the candy while speed-reading the book, trying desperately to remember whether the book she now held tightly was different to that she had bought years ago for the library. Wondering whether the world had already changed, and how.

Shadows danced around the fireplace as she read. The story sang inside her mind while she considered how she could test this book.

The Book Club

The box of snapshots fell open, spilling across the floor. The past. That part of Emma’s life she had tucked away out of sight. Awaiting a time when she could bear to look at them again. Now those memories of past moments were scattered in front of her again.

She stared at them in dismay, “Drat! I do not have time for this.”

She had no time today. She had other things to do. She was getting dressed for a meeting with Betty and other friends, to discuss things old and new, at the book-club downtown in the Library. But it had started to rain and the rain was turning to snow, and she needed… but the pictures were scattered everywhere. She sighed.

She left the snapshots lying on the floor and went to her computer to check the time she was due at the library.

An Email from the Woodville Library Book Club
Books, brownies and coffee. This Tuesday 7:30pm (bring a plate of something to welcome our new member Nick please).
This Week: Kormac's Saga
Next Week: Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl. 
Remember: Reading is dreaming with Open Eyes!  
Please feel free to read this week's book. Books are enriched by discussing them with others, looking at them through other people's glasses and unpeeling the onions we don't want to touch by ourselves. 
Rules: 
1. Disagreements may occur from time to time and can be healthy, but keep the tone respectful.
2. Spoilers may occur and. like a rotten apple, once spoilt can never be unspoilt.
Signed Betty

Emma had no time to spare. Leaving the snapshots lying on the floor, she grabbed a container of milk and a bag of cookies and ran for the door.

Emma arrived at the library just as the other members of the book club were dusting snow off over-jackets and milling around their seats. She sat at her usual place at the long table, quietly cataloguing the rest of the members.

Emma had known Betty, the Librarian, for years. Betty was an older woman who lived just a couple of streets away, but then, in this town, everyone was only a couple of blocks away. She had worked at the library for years after her husband was killed in Vietnam. She was a no nonsense person but, and this surprised Emma, Betty strongly believed in ghosts.

Sitting next to her, playing on her phone, young Sarah had just dyed her hair black but told them all she wanted to go red. Sarah was still at college and had just busted up with boyfriend. Emma suspected that Sarah only came to the library to access the free Wi-Fi.

Sifting through the returns trolley, Neoen was a retired school teacher. Emma remembered her from school. Last book club meeting she had told them she had been reading Robert Vaughn, A Fortunate Life and the Young Eric Malone, New England Stories, 1950-67 for a while. She really needed to find a new book to read.

Genny, who had told Emma she was 44 (but looked older because she had done something strange to her hair), was the proprietor of Genny’s Herbs and Home Spells, which seemed to sell more coffee than magic. Emma had heard her speaking to Betty in hushed angry tones about that guy, Bruce, who she slept with once and who she feared might be cheating on her. She had asked Betty "What are the best ways to help a woman who is being abused by a man?" Emma thought, perhaps unkindly, that Genny was inclined to whine and waited for others to tell her what to do, instead of, you know, making up her own mind and doing something.

Rodi was seated. Rodi was trying to get a job at the library and worked here from time to time as a volunteer. Shy and retiring, it was not immediately clear whether Rodi was male or female, because of the number of cloths he/she wore. Rodi had a copy of The Power of Positive Thinking open. Rodi had been reading it for a while now and had updated the Library's online tracking register, which Rodi had set up, to indicate that Rodi had got to page 45.

Emma tried not to look at Bruce (the other guy). She had noticed that Betty had given him a cold stare as he blustered in from the cold. Emma compromised by looking at his soft crisp shirt and then his watch. He was the manager of a local co-operative insurance business, but seemed to enjoy reading. Emma did not like the way he looked at her. She had no issue with people who were rich and clever, but he was also controlling, an asshole, and incredibly judgmental. And self-centered. Emma took a sigh and wondered whether she had missed anything.  She thought, “Just like my Ex.”

Over at the fire, coaxing a little more heat into the room, was Trevor. He was an older retired man, his life consumed with small gardening jobs. Emma did not pick him as a reader; he probably just enjoyed the company and the warmth.

Finally, Emma brushed Nick with her eyes. He was new in town, her age and dressed in nice casual clothing. He had just moved into an old place down near the lake. He seemed quiet but Emma already liked his smile. She hoped he would like her chocolate chip cookies.

While Betty called them to order and tried to get Sarah to put away her phone, Emma looked at the library itself. Not much had changed since she was small. She grew up in the town and left when she married and moved to New York. She moved back when the relationship ended to look after her dad. Betty had encouraged them both to come to the book club but he had a stroke and was now in a nursing home.  She shifted, a little uncomfortably. She had injured her back helping her dad but resisted all advice to do something about it.

Betty tapped the table and smiled. Betty said, “You have all read this book, so tonight I thought we would start by exploring some of the difficult parts. So, we are going to start in the middle of this book. But first I want you to forget all the guff you ever read about magic and swords and duels.”

There was a scatter of laughter, as each got out books and tablets. Betty waited for the room to settle into a gentle silence.

Betty continued, “In the days before the first millennium, swords were individually crafted. Swords that stood the test of time earned an individual name. In the sagas, they were referred to with respect and keenly sought to settle legal disputes."

"Remember, this is real. Real people believed this. This is not the stuff of fairy tales. Some swords were straightforward and used for battle. Such was the great sword Skrymir owned first by the warrior Steinar. Named after one of the mythic giants, it was never dirty nor troublesome to handle.” Unconsciously Betty thought of her own troublesome charges, including the book she held.

Betty slowly tasted the strange names, “Skry - mir”, “Stein - ar”. Emma’s mind drifted. The smells of the library, of brownies on the table and hot chocolate, of friends around the table, some watching her, some reading with her, and others watching out the old buildings eyes, to snow flurries and the sounds of cars.

Emma started to relax, comfortable with the familiar.

Betty continued, “Other swords, the swords used in duels to settle legal cases, were troublesome.” She paused and tested the next name, “Kor-mac.” She smiled that she had got it right and continued more confidently, “Kormac had first experienced swords in settling legal duels. His swords were not the only troublesome parts of his story. Rather trouble followed him.”

Betty took a deep breath and crossed her fingers. The next bit was a step in the dark.

The book she held warmed.

Part 2: Kormac

Wraiths

A gust of wind struck the window. The lights in the library flickered. Emma’s eyes flashed in the light. She remembered her snapshots spilled on the floor.

Betty kept talking. “Kormac was young. He was a warrior poet. Kormac was often in trouble because of his poetry. At that time, poets were often sued for libel. This could involve paying a fine or a trial by an official sword fight.  Kormac needed a sword so he visited Skeggi, a magician, who possessed an excellent sword. The sword was called Skofnung. Lawyers often tried to borrow Skofnung.”

Then Betty’s voice changed, “Sometimes I find it helps if the words are spoken out loud.”

Betty looked around the table and asked, “Who wants to play?” Trevor and Rodi faded into the darkness. Bruce, who had been typing on his phone, found himself in the spotlight.

Betty chose, “Bruce, please read Skeggi’s lines." Betty turned to Nick, " Nick, can you read Kormac’s lines? The dialogue here makes it clear who says what. See what you can do. Feel free to improvise. Oh, and here is a duster. Pretend it is Skofnung.” Betty passed the duster to Bruce.

Lightning lit up the windows. The lights flickered again and the library dimmed. There was a gentle murmur from those around the circle. Emma’s eyes burned in the fire as the two men started to read.

Bruce coughed and read Skeggi’s lines. Emma watched him carefully. In the dim light, Bruce seemed older. Shadows played over him, gifting him with the illusion of thick gold chains around neck and arms.

For a moment there was silence.

Bruce leaned back and thundered."Listen to me!" He spat out each word. Emma’s eyes narrowed. A cruel smile played on Bruce’s face. He held the duster carefully and chose his words, “You must carefully prepare the sword before the trial.” He turned slightly, his face falling into darkness. He continued, “Before the trial, make sure that the sun does not shine on the pommel of the sword. Before the trial, do not withdraw the blade from the scabbard. Before the trial, you should sit by yourself.”

Bruce paused for a moment. Shadows slipped into his words.  He continued, “Before the trial, take the sword from its scabbard. Hold the blade flat. Blow hard on the surface of the blade. A little snake will crawl out from the hilt. Turn the sword sideways, and the snake will crawl back into the hilt.”

Nick starts to read Kormac’s lines. Nick’s face seems to change. He seems young and angry. He stood and walked to Bruce. He held out his hand for the sword. Nick said sharply, “I do not believe in magical snakes.”

Bruce laughed and looked towards Genny. He pointed to the pommel and said, “It also has a healing pouch.”

Genny turned white, tears filling her eyes. Emma shook her head. She saw Betty start to open her mouth as if to speak. But before Betty had a chance to talk, the younger man sneered. Nick laughed the laugh of the young, “What will you sorcerers think of next?”

Bruce looked at Nick for the first time. A sudden flash of recognition crossed his face. He suddenly seemed much older and vulnerable. He hesitated a moment, then held Skofnung toward Nick.

Emma held her chest. Involuntarily, she cried, “No! Listen to the old man! Poet, you keep making the same mistake. Your arrogance will kill you! You will bleed to death on a beach far from here. The great sword Skrymir will fall on that beach, and it will rust in the briny waters of that cursed place. Just once, stop and listen!”

The other library club members turned to look at her.

Emma slowed, “You never listen. On the day you will die, did you think to honor the memory of the sword Steinar? Did you sacrifice to the God of Justice? Or did you stagger out into the world full of false courage?”

The wind crashed through the library window. Trevor leaped to his feet to close them against the wind.

Nick stood, and staggered briefly as though on an uneven surface. He looked at her. His words are slurred, "I remember wraith. I do not need your needles. I heard what Skeggi said.”

Emma looked at Nick and cried out, “You never listen to anyone except yourself. You do not care about anyone else.”

Nick paused and shrugged, “Despite the magic nonsense, I heard his message. He told me to sit alone before the trial and think. Relax. Consider the sense of continuing. Draw the sword only if I am ready to die. Recall that I am wielding a sword unbroken by past battles. Look at the sword. Feel the sharp edge of the blade. Take responsibility for the living.”

Bruce looked at Nick, and for a moment Emma saw fear. Nick continued, mimicking Bruce with an icy-cold voice, “And if you fail, there is always the healing pouch.”

Nick seized the sword from Bruce, and turned to him, “I do not need your magic tricks. I need steel.” Emma watched Bruce crumple into his chair.

Nick turns to her, “I do not need your words on words. Red mushrooms and mead are all I need.”

Emma looks at him. He is unknown and known. Her voice finds more words. Like a puppet on a string, she says, “You won against the sorcerer, but you lost the duel. You lost your case. Your dignity was in tatters. You suffered a split thumb and the loss of the duel ransom. And still, you stand here and blame the sword!”

Nick puts a mead skin to his lips and takes a draught, “Of course, I did not bother to follow the old fool.” He turned back from her and looked at Bruce, who was looking white. Nick continued, “On the day of the trial, Skofnung came out of its scabbard howling.”

Nick comes close to Emma, a hairs-breadth away from her ear and spoke words to her that no one else will ever hear. "I fought the duel to win back your love. I will not forget you. Our paths still cross through the years. Our lives still are caught up. Interwoven even after that cursed beach. We travel through time together."

Then he stepped back from her, shaking his head and looking confused.

Emma caught Nick’s eyes and asked silently, “What was that?” He is still for a moment and shook his head, unknowing.

Trevor shut the windows, and the wind dropped. He looked back at them and mumbled an apology, “Sorry about that. No need to stand. Go back to your places. I will fix the light and get the urn boiling.”

Sarah said, “Wow! Do that again. Bruce looked so creepy.”

Nick stepped away from Emma. He was still staring at her, a savage light draining from his eyes as he sat, still holding the duster. Betty stood next to Genny for a moment longer looking at Bruce. Bruce was staring at the table, arms stretched out, lost. The others busied themselves rescuing papers and books blown by the gale.

Betty resumed her seat. She let one hand go of the leather bound book she was tightly holding and clapped her free hand on the table for attention. “And that is why we still read these books. Thank you, Bruce and Nick.” Betty turned to Emma, her head cocked.

Emma said, quickly, “I do not know what happened…”

Betty played with the truth, “It happens all the time. We get caught up in a book, and before you know it, we are in someone else’s shoes, living their lives.” She wondered to herself, “Why has the book chosen Emma to be Kormac’s first love, Steingerd? “

Sarah looked at Betty and asked, “Can I play a part, please? And can someone take a picture of me doing it with my phone?”

Trevor leaned across Nick and took the duster from him. Nick jumped a little. Trevor said in an active voice none of them could remember hearing before, “The Library wiring is as old as me, improving the lighting will have to wait until the morning. I will light a couple of candles instead.”

The wind outside masked the suddenly shuffle of ten thousand nervous books.

Betty looked at Sarah and said, “Sure. We will all get a turn”

Neone shook her head, “I don't think I could do that. What Emma just did. I am happy to read and watch.”

Betty talked about Kormac’s law duels a little longer while Trevor lit candles and set them up on the table. She told the circle how Kormac wrote a lot of poetry. She told how this eventually involved a lot of litigation, but while Kormac's poetry was always pretty good, he never improved his legal technique. Betty privately thought that litigation against poets was probably not a bad thing, especially against bad poets and so-called modern musicians. Neone looked at her in a strange manner, and for a second Betty wondered if she had spoken out loud.

Like other senior librarians Betty usually had the ability to talk about one thing while turning over challenging and grave problems somewhere else in her mind. Librarians develop all sorts of useful skills learning the Dewey Library Classification System, the book of secret rules which determine which books can sit next to other books. For example, it was invaluable in detecting people trying to smuggle overdue books into a library.

With a growl, Betty spotted a flaw in her plan to test the books. In the darkened room, back on her desk, she suddenly saw that the other chained books were glowing red hot. She shook her head. There was no doubt that the book club members were being influenced by Kormac’s Saga. But that was on the cards in any case. Now she could not rule out interference by the other two books still chained back at her desk. She told herself with a frown that someone such as herself (imbued with a deep love of the scientific method) would have excluded such possibilities when conducting experiments. Then she shut her eyes for a moment and tried to forget that that was what she was doing: experimenting on the book club circle.

Betty wondered if she should lock the books in the old safe in the attic. There was plenty of space in the safe. The only other occupants were some historic patents. Bed spring mattresses patents to be precise, invented a hundred years ago down the road in this very town. Spring mattresses had a lot to answer for, in Betty’s opinion. The world was a little safer with the patents locked up. She briefly contemplated what might happen if the mattress patents ate the books and shuddered.

The circle became a little restless. Emma had difficulty concentrating. She was not alone. Nick was staring into the fire. Bruce was looking pale and listless. Sarah was animatedly typing into her phone. Neone was nervously listening, flashing back to her time teaching students, and hoping she didnt get called to read anything.

Trevor announced that the urn was boiling, and called a timeout. Betty went to throw a coat over the other two books. Sarah dashed after her to ask if some of her friends could come over. Betty hesitated for a moment, then put Kormac's Saga down on the table, gave it a warning glance, and turned her attention to Sarah. The others joined the queue for the coffee. Genny was pouring herself a coffee. She noticed that Bruce was still sitting lost. With some misgivings, she poured a second coffee and took the coffee and some cookies over to him.

Emma offered Nick a cookie. His eyes met hers and he smiled. His eyes were kind, not those savage eyes she had seen a little while before. She commented, “You drink your coffee black? Pretty strong” He shook his head, “I like the raw taste. Umm, I am sorry about before. I don’t know what got into me. One moment I was reading my lines, the next… it was savage. I am not like that. It was like I was someone else. Sort of like being back at school and being in drama class” He took a bite of her cookie.

Emma shook her head, “Not just like being in drama class…”

Emma’s eye was caught by a light near Betty's chair. Betty’s copy of Kormac's Saga was glowing like a golden ingot. She frowned and began to point at the table.

Lightning flashed again, and in a flash, the library was gone.

Instead, Emma was outside in the wind and occasional drop of rain. It was suddenly very cold and very dark. She shook her head; perhaps the windows had opened and blown out the candles. She froze and let her eyes adjust. Slowly she made out the details. She gasped. She was on a long desolate stony beach. Beneath her feet were hundreds of snap shots. Through ragged clouds, the moon and stars shone fitfully from above. Further down the beach, lit by distant lightning, was a cairn in the shape of a dragon’s head.

Nick was on the beach.

Nick saw her. He staggered towards her. His eyes were strange, desperate and savage. She cringed. He thrust the real sword Skrymir between the stones and roughly comes to her. He said, “Still, after all, these years, it is you alone I want!”

She twists out of his grasp, uneasy on the wet stony ground. She hears herself say with bitterness, "Your affection is meaningless. I can never forgive you."

Slurred, she heard his voice, stained with tears, "Name me a task. Any task.”

She is silent for a long time, remembering his hand hard against her throat.

He pleads, “Let me sing you the verse from when we first met: when your hands and flashing eyes were young. When men sought your cheeks and long hair."

She could not let that pass, “As they do not still?”

The storm comes nearer. Lightning flashes out to sea. The flash outlines a third person, just behind the cairn. A Scottish giant was standing there and stamping his feet against the rain and cold. Briefly, Kormac and Steingerd are distracted by the movement.

Kormac stands suddenly afraid. The seers tell he will die near a beach with a dragon cairn at the hands of a Scottish giant. Part of him wished his sword had both the little snake and the healing pouch. He cries, “It was not my doing that in anger you married first one and then another merchant." He said, “Our lives are bound together. Take me back and make me a cambric shirt. I will till your barren land and make it fertile once again.”

His voice is eaten by the tide.

Betty’s voice calls them back to Earth. The beach with a dragon cairn fades and they are back in the library. Betty is holding the book again, tightly shut.

Emma caught Nick’s eyes and asked silently, “What was that?” He is still for a moment and shook his head.

Betty held her book tightly as she talked in low tones to Trevor. Trevor points at the snow settling on the windows outside. He says to the circle, “Those of you who walked tonight, may need to think about getting a lift home. The snow is starting to set in.”

Betty sighed, “We have so much more to do. But it will have to wait till next week and better weather. Will we regroup next week, same time?” There were nods, to which she added a question, “Same book?”

Sarah said, “Hell yes!”

The storm outside was building fast. Wind shook the window frames.

The book club started to break up, as the group collected cups and plates and tidied up. Betty took a moment to go back to her desk to rechain the book she held tightly. As she turned from her desk, she bumped into Bruce, who had followed her.

He looked at her, "Why?"

Betty started to make up an excuse about the value of the book, but Bruce shook his head. He said, "I can't talk now. Something bad is happening. I need to speak with you.” He whispered, “Alone." He looked around, "I love this place. I don’t want anything to happen to it."

Betty felt a chill run through her. A new set of windows flew open, this time extinguishing the candles in a moment. In the darkened Library, Trevor told them to all stand still. He switched on a torch and closed the windows, grumbling loudly about young people who did not shut windows properly. Sarah murmured, "Not me."

Bruce and Genny disappeared quietly without anyone noticing. Betty and Neoen (who had walked) cadged a lift with Nick. Before he left, Nick shook Emma’s hand and thanked her for the refreshments. In her car, she opened her hand and found a telephone number scrawled on the paper.

Back home, Emma locked up and went to bed.

While the crow's day drags on in the darkness


Emma shut her eyes and then, with a start, opened them.

This time it was different. She was on a horse, riding along a headland. This time it was substantial. This time she tasted the air, felt the coarse woven material of her garment moved with the horse under her. This time, she thought, if I fall off the horse, I will get hurt.

A flood of memories came into her mind.

On the morning tide, she had searched for his arrival. She rode along the shore on her dappled mare. From a high vantage, she watched him row a small boat from his longboat in the bay to shore. She saw him borrow a horse from the shore-master. He galloped to meet her at the headland fells.

For a moment the fates had business elsewhere. He jumped from horseback and helped her alight.

She slipped into his arms, slowly and full. Their eyes had locked, and they were lost.

He spread his cloak on the soft grasses, and they settled together, softly together under the one roof-tree.

The horses wandered away. Their shadows became longer as the day passed.

It was not nearly time enough. The fates came looking for them. They found their eyes locked in eyes.

With a start, Emma said, "It is time to look for the horses. I must return home." She thought to herself, “Please, let this be just a dream.”

She had heard the horses close by, but now they were nowhere in sight.

Together they walked along the coastline to a nearby farm. They were taken into the hall, sat on the cross benches with the head of the household close to the warm hearth and treated with courtesy.

The lady of the hall sat with Emma, and an Irish slave combed her hair free of mosses and bracken of the highland fells. Emma looked at the young slave girl, who blushed and said, “My hair is red, cool eh? You had only seen it when it was black. How did you get all this crap in your hair?” Emma turned to the lady of the hall, who rolled her eyes and the woman said quickly, “I do not know what to say. I am not sure why I am here.”

That night in their bed closet Emma chose to sleep on the other side of a barrier that parted one side from the other side.

He complained, "Open your eyes and turn around. Defy the fates. Come near to me, so near that only the sheen from the deep is left between."

She said, "No, it is better thus. It is all over and done with. Name it no more."

He dismisses her, "I cannot hear you speaking."

She heard him rise and walk outside the hall.

She needed to finish this, so she followed him into the moon-lit hay field.

He was sitting on the far hay field wall, listening to the crash of the cold sea and watching their errant horses picking their way towards the farm. Inland, hills were draped with thin tendrils of mist, illuminated by the moon dancing with snow clouds. Emma placed her hand on his shoulder. They watched the mist dressing and undressing the hills as the moon comes and goes. The mist touched them gently with night dew and ocean scent.

He asked, “Why will you not come back to me?”

She said, "I reject you all. Why should I exchange one knife for another?"

He said, “We were still hearth friends. I came and sang your songs.”

Different memories came into her mind. She remembered his drinking and the violence that followed the slander of his love poetry. Violence and misery, random and savage, visited on her and all around.

She whispered, “We have different memories of that time.”

A snowflake settles in her hair. He says: “Sweet woman, your hair sea-dazzle gleaming, can you see that time has stopped. While the crow's day drags on in the darkness, we are the only ones left here on Earth.”

She cannot bear it any longer, "You once asked me to make you a shirt. You had no business asking that of me. So now I ask you to make me a cambric shirt, without seams nor fine needlework! Wash it in the dry well of your love and see that it is dried on the thorn that has never blossomed! Then you will be a true love of mine."

He does not hear her and instead talks of his need, "I have your face etched on my mind. I ache when I think of you.”

She said, "You once promised me a farmhouse, cattle, fine horses to race and children. You let your bride-price fail. You only get one chance. So take this acre of land between salt water and the sea-sand. Plow it with a ram's horn, and sow it all over. Reap and barn it in a mouse-hell and thrash it with your shoes! Only then shall you be a true love of mine."

He stands and lashes out. Through slurred voice, he shouts "You are asking the impossible."

She said, "I ask you nothing more than you ask of me."

Then she ran from him. She ran from his violence, into the sea, pursued by the demons of the past. Like Emma has a thousand times before.

Dragons and Butterflies

In the night Emma awoke, her bedding askew. She was sweating and crying. Outside, she heard the sounds of snow plows working on the roads.

She turned on the light and hopped into the shower, trying to wash away the nightmare with hot water and soap.  She wrapped a towel around her hair and prowled through the house. She ended up looking at the snapshots. They were still lying where they had fallen. She bent down and picked one at random.

It was a photo of her sister, on a holiday when they were younger. Just a couple of days in the mountains. She drifts and remembered the tent by a deep mountain pool. She imagines them throwing off their clothes and swimming in the pool. But, did that really happen or did they just talk about it?  She shakes her head, so long ago. She concentrates. Just two bodies. This time she fights a different thought as it takes shape: two bodies swimming in the eye of a dragon. She whispered, “It didn’t happen.”

She does remember being warmed by nighttime fires. Around the fire they had drunk vodka and laughed. They made up stories about eyes in the dark and flying on dragons. And Emma's sister composed nonsense rhymes about the imaginary lovers they would meet in that wonderful future that never quite eventuated. But, in that moment, they became young girls once again.

Emma remembered one of Oriana's nonsense rhymes. She remembered that it didn't rhyme, but they had laughed till they cried. She tried to remember one of the rhymes:

Once upon a time,
Far, far away
There was a little girl
Living inside a woman
And everything the girl touched
Turned into a butterfly
Which annoyed the woman
For when she bent to kiss a man
The little girl touched him first and off he flapped
So the woman bought a large bottle of vodka
And spent a whole day getting the little girl drunk

Emma frowned, wondering how Betty would view the rhyme. Then she thought about her sister and whether she should ring Oriana. She hesitated. Oriana lived on the West Coast in a small village high in the mountains and didn’t believe in phones after sunset. Emma compromised and lit one of her sister’s hand-made candles instead. She sat listening to music by Imagine Dragon and tried not to look at the phone and a scrap of paper with Nick’s phone number.

The music faded into the silence, and she sat alone in the candlelight. She thought of her dream and Nick's cloak on the soft ground. Maybe a dream, but the cloak felt real. She had to know for sure.

She rang Nick. He picked up the phone, too fast.

Emma started, “I hope I didn’t wake you.”

He said, “I was awake. I need to talk to you.”

She said, “It happened again, didn’t it. It is not just me.”

He said, “Yes.”

He paused. She heard him breathing and imagined his heart beating fast.

He said, “I am scared. I think I am going to die on the beach. I do not want to go back to that nightmare.”

She said, unconvinced, “It is just a story.” She paused, and because she had read the whole story, could not help continuing, “Besides, you don’t actually die on the beach. Your brother takes you back to a hut, and you die there.”

He was quiet. Too late, she wondered whether this had helped, “You still there.”

He said, “I do not know what to do!”

Emma said, “Look, you are not dead.” That was positive. To fill in the empty space between thoughts she added, “Well, you do not sound dead.” She laughed nervously, suddenly wondering whether death was a poor subject. “Let’s not even talk about, you know, you dying. Perhaps we should try sleeping again.  We can catch up tomorrow and try to work it out.”

He asked, “Can I come over? I mean, can I come over now.” He added hurriedly, “To talk.”

Emma felt herself blushing, remembering the cloak, “Do you think that is wise?”

He said, shaken, “I do not know what is happening to me. To us. I do not want to go to sleep.”

She asked, “What will we do?”

He said, “Drink coffee. Figure out what is happening.”

She felt butterflies in her tummy. She thought to herself, “Maybe coffee. Or maybe something else.”

He said, “I could really do with the company.”

She said, “Perhaps we could watch a movie or play some music. Or talk. But, I have to go to work in the morning.”

The candle flickered and guttered. Emma thought for a moment and lit a new one.

*

In the morning, Betty dressed warmly against the fallen snow. She locked the door behind her, and she left her empty house to fend for itself. There was a leak above the front porch, and she wondered what sort of mess she would find on her return. She made her way carefully through the drifts, throwing a little mix for the wildlife in her front garden as she went past the feeders.

The pavement was uneven, but she walked with a measured step, her breath puffs of white mist. Down in the forest, the monastery prepared for Morning Prayer and, again, she recalled her promise to meet the Silent Order to discuss one of their problem books.

At the bottom of Hill Drive she stopped and looked up the gentle rise. Trudging up towards the town center, her mind drifted to the events of the previous night, and her need to lock her books up more securely. For a moment, she skipped over overdue books and thought about Bruce.  The path was slippery. But she had walked this way alone the past thirty years and she was not about to let a path beat her.

As she reached the top of the rise, a car pulled up next to her with a crush of compressed snow. Bruce put his head out the window and said, “Betty, we need to talk.”

Betty turned to him and looked. Her eyes narrowed. Bruce looked awful, year older than he was. He was disheveled, looking like he had not slept. He apologized, “I am sorry, I know I look like a mess. I need to talk to you, in private.”

Betty thought for a moment and then said, “Bruce, I have never hopped into a sports car with a single man, and I am not about to break the practice of a lifetime. I am sure you are very busy, surely you can just tell me what you need to, right here, right now.”

Bruce said, with a grimace, “Betty, you should not listen to the town gossip. I may be single, but I am a respectable man and, believe it or not, but I am on your side.” He motioned her closer and spoke in a whisper, “Some of the Councilors have been talking about drastically reducing your Library budget. But I think I know a way of stopping it and, maybe, reversing the last reduction."

Betty was no stranger to the cut and thrust of high politics, and tried to stifle anger from leaking through her eyes. Then Bruce shook his head, "But something more important has come up.  I need to tell you.” He motioned her even closer, looking quickly to see that no one was watching.

Against her better judgment, Betty bent down to hear him. He said very softly, “That new man at the book club. Nick. I think I recognize him.”

Betty nodded, “Where from?”

Bruce said, “It is not okay Betty. You need to be very careful. I don't think Nick is his name."

Betty said, "Spit it out Bruce."

He said, "I had a bad feeling about him last night. I had trouble sleeping, but then I remembered.  One of his business associates disappeared. I believe that the police are still looking for him in connection with the disappearance.”

*

Emma had met Nick at the door. She had had time to fix her face and comb her hair. She helped him dust off the snow and ice on the enclosed porch, and he gave her a hug. She smiled. She invited him in, and he kicked off his shoes.

They sat on the couch, drinking coffee; getting warm and watching the candlelight.

She asked how he felt.

His eyes smiled at her.

They both started to talk at once. Emma laughed, “For a new guy in town, I seemed to have known you for a long time.” Then she blushed.

Nick said, “I am not who you think I am.”

Emma smiled at him and put her hand on his, “What do you mean?”

He held her hand tight and smiled back. “I am just plain old Nick. I am not the warrior-poet Kormac. I have never gone adventuring, or fought a duel or ridden a horse, or made love to a beautiful woman on top of a headland.”

She laughed at him and held his hand tighter. She smiled and said, “But you could. I think you would be good at all of those.”

He said, “I am not that man. He is cruel and arrogant. Sure of himself. I have never been any of those things. Until my dad died, I worked in a bookshop in Newtown. The worst thing I have ever done is not to give a refund on a Samuel R Delany book.”

She giggled, “That is so mean. Why not?”

He said, “It was an older guy. He had no idea Delany was a gay black writer. I remember the book. It was Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand. He came in blustering and shouting about us selling weird books.”

Emma said, “The Book Club read that last year. Then Betty came around and read it to my dad. They talked about it for hours.”

He said, “Might just be the most important book written last century. Now that sounds weird, talking about last century. Makes me feel ancient. Still, that book changed the world. No way was I going to let some old fool come into the shop and dismiss it without him even trying to understand it.“

She said, “So what did you do?”

He said, “I told him I would not give him a refund until he had read it.”

She laughed, “Did he?”

He shrugged. She felt a thrill run through her. “I don’t know. He never came back.”  He smiled.

Emma asked, “I think there is a bit of Kormac in you. Is that the old bookshop in Main Street? Near the big new library? And what are you doing here now.”

Nick paused, nodded and picked up his coffee. “Dad and my brother were working in books as well. They had a small business rebinding books. Dad died suddenly last year. I left the bookshop to sort out the estate, and I helped my brother out until...”

Emma gave him a long hug. He said, “Thanks. I am sorry, I am telling you my life story, not answering your question. Look, you mentioned your father. Will our talking disturb him?”

Emma said, “That is fine. I am sorry about your dad. Mine had a stroke a bit back and is at Woodview Nursing Home. So, it is just you and me here.“

Nick smiled, as the second candle guttered and died.

They sat together in the dark, and she rested her head on his shoulders. She said, “I know you are not Kormac.”

They sat in quiet companionship for a long moment, making small adjustments to their positions. She nestled into his arms, and there was a soft sigh. She said quickly, “That came from the couch.” She turned and looked up at him, his face illuminated by the soft street lamp light that drifted into her sitting room.

She smiled, “So, what happened to your brother?”

Lightning crashed, the wind and rain beat against her arms. She was standing knee deep in cold sea water and waves whipped against her tunic.

Kormac came into the sea and dragged her back to the beach, scraping her legs on the rough gravel beach. She lay there shivering.

His face curled, “My brother? Scar Brother? Why do you want to know?”

He looked around. To the north, he could see the Dragon Cairn. To the south, he could just make out a longboat pulled onto the beach. He imagined figures milling in the distance and driftwood being thrown together to build a fire. He nodded southwards, “He is back there, with the others.”

She tried to scramble to her feet, shaking sky tears from her body. He searched his pack for a skin of mead, his lips cracked and dry, unsteady, still watching the cairn.

Memories flooded him of his brother and his doom. He muttered: 'My life meant something. My brother and I built the stronghold named Scarborough.” He turned back to her, “But far more than that, Wraith. I loved you! The whole world will know I loved you!'

A scald once told him of a wild Scotland beach with a cairn decorated by a dragon rune. He laughed at the scald and talk of a Scot giant. The scald had told him wide eyes that he would be failed by his great sword Skrymir and left alive, long enough to be taken from the battlefield and die disgracefully in bed. Ineligible for an eternity of entertainment and stories in the halls of the gods. He remembered hitting the scald and leaving her broken on the ground. He turns to the sky, "But it has not ended yet. I will not drift in the torment of the ninth circle waiting for the end of days."

Kormac turns back to the south. The bonfire has been lit, outlining long boats upon the shore, smoke welling as the fires battled rain drops. His brother and his host. He thinks back to Scarborough, remembering it first as a collection of rough buildings, and then a succession of towers and walls until the port city great up around it. Far away, on the mid-east coast of England.

He remembers her and says, "Wraith! The whole world knows of Scarborough and its ancient fair. From the song. Our song!" He says to her, "Hear me. The whole world still knows."

Emma looks at him through the bitter cold and tears. She whispered, "You sang me many songs, some sweet. Some lewd and profane. Songs only a husband should sing his wife."

He insists, "No, it is the song of our life, you and me. Listen to the words once more.” He starts to sing, 'You can only be a true love of mine if you..."

Emma interrupts, "You failed."

But he continues, his words carried away by the wind and the surf,
"But, if not...
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Let me know that at least she will try
And then she'll be a true love of mine."

Sheet lightning flashes above the waves, illuminating the cairn with a dragon rune and Kormac alone upon the wild Scottish beach. She sees him stop and stare at the cairn, wind driving storm clouds across the boundary of land and sea.

Rain hits his face. He comes to his pack and great sword, thrown into the gravel beach. He shouts at the Gods, “I was once real.” She shut her eyes, trying to dismiss the image from her mind. Thunder cracks along the sea shore. Again she heard his voice, “Why have you left me here alone?” Followed by his bitter answer: “Just the second son of a farmer. Not my brother. I had to roam the world. A home I cannot return too. No wife. No hall. Just you, Wraith!”

Wind Wolves roar around him, his eyes are lit by lightning. A frightening man, dressed in leather and iron. He is suddenly standing next to her, looking at her. He blinks and she is there again, swimming in his eye. She catches a glimpse of herself reflected in his eye.

Behind the cairn on that lonely beach, the Scottish giant has seen the fire dancing far to the South. He raises his club above his shoulders blue and shouts to the sky. He charges Kormac. Kormac pulls his sword from the gravel beach and turns to face him.

Time speeds, Emma falls back onto the beach. All around her is the sound of anger and violence, lightning, and thunder, the fall of blood and rain. Then, it ends, and she climbs back to her feet.

Kormac lies upon the beach. Beyond him, the Scottish giant has crawled to his death back towards the dragon stone, a trail of blood and gore to mark his failed progress. Kormac's own lifeblood feeds the beach stones.

Kormac’s eyes search for her. He says, “Wraith, we remain bound together. Relent, and take my warmth as once you did.”

But his eyes dimmed as she watched the last night deepened, and he fell asleep to dream of death alone.

*

Betty walked to her desk deep in thought. At her desk, she looked at the three books bound by a light chain. She reached out and touched the binding of Kormac's Saga. The book flinched as she took it into her firm grip. She shut her eyes and ran her finger over the front cover. A thousand possibilities were examined and discarded. The book cover was soft and supple, with a faint imperceptible pattern. The endpapers were firm, thick and untouched by time. She held the book to the light, straining to see what she could feel. She thought, "An old edition, but rebound. Why?"

Betty put the book back and repeated the process with the other two books. Then she sighed and pushed her chair back and looked at the desk. She would need help.

She took off her reading glasses and shook her hair. For a moment, the years fell away from her. The assistant librarians turned to her and froze. A pin fell in the back part of the library and echoed loudly through the silence. Oblivious to the attention, Betty reached into a lower drawer and brought out an old wooden box. The three books chained to her desk suddenly felt the clench of fear. Betty opened the wooden box and looked at Mabel's magnifying glass.

Betty remembered back to that night when Mabel taught her to use the magnifying glass. Even then, Mabel was old beyond thinking. It was the hey-day of the book. Wealthy and poor, famous and infamous would seek private audiences with Mabel, asking for special consideration for the next purchase of a newly published book from the Capitol booksellers or foreign ports. Mabel's favor could not be bought nor sold. She listened to all, but made decisions by balance and fairness, in the interests of her community. And when a new book came into the library, she would draw out her magnifying glass and carefully inspect it before displaying it for a week on the 'New Acquisitions Shelf.' Townsfolk would crowd around the library windows, peering onto the new books, wondering what new delight or mystery she had allowed into the community. Not everyone approved her choices. Not everyone welcomed the future. But no one questioned her judgment, at least, not in the open where the sun was shining. Sometimes a new purchase made the townsfolk gasp. In the dark shadows, her choices were debated. Some grumbled some squirmed, some drew their plans against her. But the plans of these mice and men (Betty quietly corrected that to 'women') came to naught because in the next moment, in the very next purchase, Mabel would balance the world again.

Decades ago, Mabel had sat where Betty sat now. Betty remembered Mabel calling Betty to come close, close enough to smell lavender and mace. Mabel opened the box and drew out the magnifying glass. She undid the silk wrapped around it, and blew lightly on the surface, misting it over. Then she wiped it clean, so clean that it would reflect Mabel's eye: the eye of balance. Betty remembered her eyes, old beyond their time from reading the small print in dim light. She remembered her old crackling voice, tired from years of smoking and lecturing the young. "Library Magic this is. Treat the magnifying glass with respect young woman. This was given me by that spendthrift Tomas my Head Librarian, and his head librarian Martha gave it to him. Yes, Martha, the one who helped those inventors and their cussed bed machine. She got it from the man I will not name who came before her, and so on back to the earliest days of the Library." Over a month, Mabel had instructed her in the use of the magnifying glass, until Betty remembering Mabel's teaching in her sleep. Then Mabel had walked into retirement and death.

Betty had particularly taken note of the warnings. Some were practical. Books from other places, and the packages they came in could carry more than ideas. Martha told her of the need to destroy seeds and plant material to prevent contamination in the local farming community. Other warnings sat on the edge of reality. Mabel used to say with a wavering voice, "I pray you never need to concern yourself with these, the ones that twist and turn in the dark."

Betty shrugged off the memories of the past. She took the magnifying glass from the box and undid the silk wrapped around it. She blew lightly on the surface, misting it over. Then she wiped it clean, so clean that it reflected her eye. From behind her, she felt a breath of air. She shut her eyes for a moment and tried to relax. She held the magnifying glass tightly. Suddenly, with a lightning fast move, immobilized Kormak's Saga and brought it into the light of her desk lamp. Betty heard the whispers of the librarians past all suddenly around her, "Careful! Slow! Be thorough!" She paused, remembering that the magnifying glass had been used to cleanse the library books after the plague after the Great War. The disease that had killed so many in the town that they had to burn the bodies in a great conflagration outside the school as the librarians of the day searched the old books for help, in vain.

She studied the surface of the cover with the magnifying glass. At the edge of cover and end paper, she made out the secret mark of a bookbinder. She had seen that mark many times and relaxed a little. It was the bookbinder from Newtown. She quietly assured those around her, "Everything is just fine. Everything is under control. Nothing bad is going to happen." Then she pursed her lips remembering Bruce's strange story from the morning. She had a sudden flashback to the previous night. She had to shake the image of Nick shaking Emma's hand out of her mind.

Then she turned her attention to the book cover. Suddenly a cold fear gripped her neck, and she gasped. There in the minute detail, beyond the sight of ordinary vision, was something Betty had never encountered. The surface was covered by a pattern of tiny scales; regular, fascinating and frightening. Suddenly the world blinked out, and she and the magnifying glass and the book were in a dark place, pinpricks of brilliant light picking out stars and the infinite all around. She watched the image of the book cover through the magnifying glass. She was mesmerized, unable to tear her eyes from the magnifying glass. As she watched, the surface of the book gently rippled beneath her, matching its movements with her heartbeat. She felt it watching her, through the magnifying glass. She could not move, could not blink, and could not breathe. Behind her, she heard an old crackling voice, "Betty, you young fool! It has you glamor bound. Fight it!" Betty concentrated with every ounce of energy she possessed. A pale hand gripped her shoulder and shook her free of the spell. She pushed the book away from her and came back to Earth.

She gasped, and Thelma ran to get her a glass of cold water while the other assistant librarians crowded around her, helping her find and put on her reading glasses again. She drank, thanking those around her, "I am fine. Please, go back to work. Maybe I might take a quiet walk and coffee."

Betty sat for a moment longer watching the library start to return to normal. She caught the occasional worried glance and smiled back. She rewrapped the magnifying glass and returned it to its drawer. She wondered when she should start training Thelma with the magnifying glass. Maybe she was getting too old for this.

On a whim, she rang Emma's work and asked to speak to her.  Perhaps Emma, or Nick, could shed some light on last night. She was told that Emma had not come to work. The man said that a couple of people had been coming late because of the snow fall.

Her eye returned to the book, shimmering with untold power.

Betty's world faded.

She was sitting with Emma, in small wooden room. Other shadows moved around them; there was the sound of children on the street below, and the taste of burnt meat and mountain air. The air tingled with mischief. Emma was spinning thread, and they were trading their life stories, weaving their lives together. Emma was talking about the warrior poet Kormac. The words turned in the air around them.

Betty asked Emma, "He still pursues you. But do you still love him."

Emma kept spinning without a pause, "Some days. Some days I have this powerful desire for him. I feel his songs inside me. I feel the Gods move me. I wish for things that cannot happen: for children unborn; for butter unchurned; for the touch of his curls."

Then Emma paused and looked into her eyes. "Gunhild, your king and you have made my life here pleasant. I have been thinking about your offer."

Betty felt her body tingle with anticipation, "Ask, and it is yours. It will be our secret."

Emma smiled, "Make me the potion. Dear witch, make me a love potion."

Betty said, "Yes. I can give you a potion beyond the craft of mere men. One that will let you bewitch him with your eyes. You will forever be within his eye. But..." She paused, and Emma laughed, "No. I do not need that sort. Yes, make me a love potion. But make me the one that makes me love him."

The room fades and Betty is back, sitting in the Library.

Betty suddenly thought of Emma.

She threw on an overcoat and walked quickly to the empty taxi rank and then on to Emma’s old house, her heart pounding. Betty arrived outside Emma's place flushed and anxious.

She saw Nick's car parked in driveway from a distance and stopped. She stopped and asked herself what Mabel would have done in a situation like this. Mabel had never had an overdue library book in her entire tenure. Betty thought grimly, and she had no overdue books till that rat Belmore came to town. One day he would get what was coming. She clenched her fists.

Betty took a deep breath and marched up to the front door. She ignored the doorbell and knocked loudly. No one answered. She stood a moment longer and knocked again.

She backed away from the door and looked a little closer. Emma's car was parked higher in the driveway. It was covered in drifts of snow. She wondered whether she should look for the innocence in the situation. Perhaps Nick and come to help Emma get her car on the road.

She thought back to the Library, "No. In desperate moments, the brave must take risks."

A breath of air touched her from behind.  She shook her head and put her shoulder down. She took a short run up and hit the door with her shoulder.

The door splintered into a thousand pieces, and suddenly she was on a cold, lonely beach. Lightning flashed.

Emma was standing in front of her holding a sword, gore stained and bloodied. Nick was on the ground, in a pool of blood, dead.

Emma turned to Betty, “Your love potion did not work.”

Betty had some critical questions to ask, but found her voice saying, “If the potion did not work girl, why are you here at the death of your almost lover?”

Emma said with a slurred voice, “He is not dead yet.” She kicked Kormac, and he groaned.

Emma looked down at him, using the sword to stay upright. “He is taking forever to die.”

Betty asked, “Why kick him? I thought you liked him?”

Emma staggered a little and said, “The potion stopped working. Now he says he is dying and he will not stop complaining, and I am trapped here until he dies. I do not think he is that badly hurt. Most of the blood is from that poor Scottish giant.” She pointed up the beach.

Betty asked, “Have you been drinking?”

Emma was defensive, “It was cold. I have been helping Kormac finish his mead. Maybe he has drunk too much and …”

Betty felt herself kneel and with practiced touch traced a series of wounds, any one of which would have been fatal. “I am sorry Steingerd. Kormac is dying. The alcohol is probably the only thing keeping him alive at the moment.”

Emma shook her head, “No. No. No. A man learned in the fey arts came this way a moment ago. He said that Kormac would be fine and he has gone to get...” She became vague, “something. Something that will help.”

Betty looked up, suddenly in control. She seized control of her voice and blurted out, “What was the person’s name?”

Emma said, “He was a Rus. Tall and arrogant. I could smell the gold in his pouch.”

Betty lost control of her voice again, but it did not matter, “Just answer me. His name?”

Emma said, “He said he was Ivan of the Dentists. He said we should beware of other Rus wandering along the beach. He told us to wait here for... the thing.” She made vague shapes in the air. “I do not feel so good.” She turned away and threw up into the dark.

Betty felt a stab of fear. She suddenly thought of the three books left on her desk. It could not be happening! She lifted her head, and she looked down the beach. In the early morning light, she could make out two figures running towards them. Above one a strange bird with a long tail weaved and dived. And in the distance, behind them, a group of black riders.

Betty gasped, “No!”

A cold breath came from behind her, and Emma’s door reformed in front of her. Betty mouthed a silent “Thank you” and reached up and opened the latch. She threw open the door and called out to Emma, “We have to get away. Right now. Help me get Kormac!”

Emma said, “But it is dark in there! All I can see is the night! Do we have to take him?”

Betty was firm, “I am sorry. Librarians never leave people behind.” Then she lied, “Everything is going to be fine. If you leave the sword behind.”

Emma shook her head, “No. He is nothing without his sword.” With a tear she continued, “And when he dies, I want it.”

Betty shook her head, “Be careful!”

Together they pulled and pushed Kormac into the door. Then Betty turned back, and with one last look at the approaching crowd, she shut it securely. She sank to the ground, her back to the door.

Betty shut her eyes and fell back into herself.

She remembered sitting with Mabel her chief librarian. They were drinking Indian Tea on the night before Mabel retired. She remembered the far-away look in Mabel’s eye.

Mabel asked, “Do you know why books take such a hold of us?”

Betty remembered her response, “Not all books. Some books keep us away. They are written in a confusing, awkward manner.”

Mabel, “You are young yet. Every book eventually has its day. Even the most challenging book will one day be picked up and read even if only out of fear, desperation or despair. Even if only by a rogue or a prince. But there are worse situations. Perhaps a doctor watching his town die around him. But tonight I am not thinking of the books we read when the plague came.”

Betty nodded and answered, “Books are lovely to touch. I like to run my fingers over the parchment. It feels so soft and forgiving.”

Mabel murmured, “Aye, there is that. And which books do you like most.”

Betty said, “My favorite are those newly printed. They make my spirits come alive.” Then she paused, a little guilty, looking out into the rows of library books surrounding them, “All books … and maybe the old ones…”

Mabel said, “Books, the paper, endpapers, covers, glues, inks, and spine come to us from nature. Sure, we mix them up, we thrash, munch, chew and distil them. In the end, though, most originate from the cellulose produced in plants and are full of the natural goodness of glucose, nature’s sugar. The materials all release natural odors and unleash primitive emotions. The ancient Greeks knew. They called nature’s sugar γλυκός, which means ‘sweet wine’ or ‘must.'”

Betty sighed, “That the smell of new and old books, and of the library itself.”

Mabel frowned, “Chemists have spoiled the experience by giving cold evil-sounding names: ‘2-ethyl hexanol’ and ‘benzaldehyde.'”

Betty shook her head, “They sound like something you clean drains with.”

Mabel, “Science is all well and good, but it can be used by the ignorant or evil for dark purposes. So, let us ignore the chemists and just sniff the pages for ourselves. Do not rely on someone else, experience it yourself!”

Betty picked up a newly printed book, a story of towers and rings and dragons. She brought it to her nose. The smell was sweet. A faint touch of vanilla, almonds and flowers.

Mabel smiled, “It only improves with age. The chemists tell us this is because the cellulose gradually breaks down into more glucose: the sweet natural intoxicating smell of age.”

Suddenly she reached out to Betty and held her shoulder in a tight grip. A grip so tight it suddenly hurt. She whispered, “Remember this Betty. People are nothing without books. Don’t let the sweet intoxication let you forget who we are. And what we do…”

Betty felt a tear coming to her eyes. She heard the soft whisper of her 10,000 books, calling, “Come drink the books, we are intoxicating.”

Betty’s shoulder ached with pain. She opened her eyes and blinked. She was on a porch floor. Confused, she wondered if she slipped. Suddenly she felt drained and timeworn. She shut her eyes.

She heard someone call, “Betty!”

She heard steps and Emma cry, “Nick! Come quickly. Betty is here. She has slipped on the ice!”

Betty heard frantic whisperings and then the tread of a man next to her. Nick said, “We are here Betty. Can you hear me?” She feels him gently shake her shoulder, and she winces. He calls her name again, and this time Betty opens her eyes and she says, “Please be careful; my shoulder is sore.”

Nick releases Betty's shoulder, “I am sorry Betty. Can you help me a little, I need to get you into a sitting position.”

Betty says, “It's ok Emma and Nick. I am feeling a little silly. I am not sure how I ended up on the floor. I was walking this way and come to check Emma was… up and about, after the snow. I am just a little sore, just let me catch my breath for a moment.”

Emma cocked her head and looked grave. “Betty, what is happening to us?”

Betty turned and struggled into a standing position, and she wondered how to answer that question without sounding mad as a hatter. She thought of the books back at the library. The books. Suddenly a look of desperation came over her.

“Emma! We have to get back to the library. I think things have just got far far worse."

Dancing Above the Clouds


Emma asked Betty and Nick to wait while she put on some warm clothing. As she dressed, she saw that her snapshots have blown into her bedroom and are started to colonize some of the corners. She picks up one. It is old and faded. She is in the arms of her grandmother. Ancient and frail of body, but here the old woman is still strong of love. Emma remembered the calming scent of lavender.

She heard Nick blow his horn and she runs for the door. Something large and heavy catches her eye. She bends and picks it up. The scent of lavender is suddenly mixed with complex smells: sweat, blood, and salt.

She walks out of the house carrying the great sword Skrymir.

Nick started to call to her, but his eyes widened when he saw what she was holding. He said, “You better sit in the back with that.”

Betty was inclined to suggest that Emma not bring the sword with them in the car because it looked like it might cut things it touched. Then Betty remembered where they might be going and asked instead, “Do either of you know how to use that?”

Nick was silent and concentrated on backing his car onto the slippery road. Emma was wedged into the back with an empty sack on her lap and the sword (which was relatively large compared to the car). The point of the sword was aimed right at the CD player. She said, “It is my sword, actually. I don’t think Nick can be trusted with it. He killed a fat Scottish man with it earlier.”

Nick gunned the car along Main Street, “I didn’t kill anyone.”

But Betty was distracted. She was looking into the distance, “That is strange. There are a lot of people milling outside the Library. I wonder what that could be about?”

Emma said, “The sword still has dried blood all over it! Besides, I saw you kill him.”

Betty said to Emma, “I am sure Nick has not killed anyone. Have you Nick?

Nick said, “I didn’t kill anyone. It is just a story.”

Emma let the sword's tip move closer to the CD player. She pointed at the dried blood, “How do explain this!”

Nick turned around to face her, “Ok! So you have a sword. I don’t want it. The Scot tried to kill me first, he had it coming.”

Betty said, “Nick! Slow down!”

But it was too late.

Nick slammed on the brakes, but the car slid on the ice. The sword jolted forward and buried itself deeply in the CD player on the dashboard of the car. The car screamed in agony, did an Olympic half turn and stopped next to the curb outside the Library. Suddenly there were people all around them.

Betty, who did not have much experience in driving turned to Nick and thanked him for the lift. Nick and Emma were sitting still looking at each other. Then they listened to the car’s audio system trying to eject the sword. Nick said, “That was not me.” Emma said, “Me either.”

Betty said, “Quick, I need you both in the Library.”

Betty dragged them both behind her ignoring the crowd. One of the assistant librarians raced over to her with Sarah in hot pursuit. The assistant said, “Librarian, there is something in the stacks. One of the girls thought she saw a bobcat or maybe a squirrel. Or a mouse!”

Sarah said, “It was not a bobcat! Betty, we have to find it! It is small and scared!”

Betty said, widening her stride, and heading for the staff entry, “Sarah, come with us.”

Sarah smiled and said, “Wicked!”

Betty frowned and told her assistant to take the crowd for a coffee, explaining that someone had probably just activated a display she was working on for the school kids. The assistant turned over the excuse in her mind, quietly added a couple of missing details, and nodded.

At the entrance to the Library, Betty turned to the three of them, “Stay close. We have to get to my desk. I think I know what is happening and it might get rough in there.”

Emma said, “Should I should go back and get my sword.”

Nick growled.

Sarah’s eyes lit up.

Betty thought about the sword and said, “We will come back for it if we need.  For now, just stay focussed. We have to get to my desk and separate any books there. Ignore everything else.”

Betty opened the door. They stepped into the Library.

Time slows.

One moment they were in the library, with cloud dancing in the high windows and casting deep shadows across the floor. Then the shadows started to fly across the room and the wooden trim of the Library walls deepened and became blood red. They heard a scream, and then a whisper, “Someone left the gate to Ancora Tu open and one of the dragons got out.”

Betty shouts to them, “Quick! Run to my desk!”

Emma watches them break into a run. But within a couple of steps, they seemed to be moving in slow motion. Mist rose from their footfalls, and small droplets of water hung in the air, as dark shadows swirl around them. Betty's desk was in the center of the storm. On the desk, Emma saw two, no three, books fighting. The books were still bound to the table by chain, but it was a savage fight, with no quarter given. Above the dispute, floating in the air was a single page torn from one of the books.

Emma felt herself fall behind the other three. She looked towards Nick. His eyes were fixed on Betty’s desk; she could see he was determined to get there with every breath in his body. Next to him, Betty was also running, pain showing on her face. The air behind Betty was disturbed as though shadowy figures were following her. Sarah’s new red hair flamed behind her as she ran; but although she ran with the others, Sarah’s eyes were searching for something in the bookshelves.

Emma felt herself start to drift.

While she ran with the others, she suddenly imagines herself as Steingerd, sitting with her husband, Thorvald the Tinker. Emma shakes her head, and cries out “Not now! Please, not now!” She sees Nick and Betty turn their eyes back to her in slow motion. Her words are captured by the sound of the shadows swirling around her and the words are twisted into a new shape.

She hears herself say, “Now! Not next year! Not some tomorrow that will never come! Do not deny this yet again!”

The turmoil around her starts to fade. She hears herself continue: "My daughters will manage our hearth and homestead. Your sons will keep the fires in the smithy." She tries to deny that she has a husband. But suddenly she sees herself looking at Thorvald. Trapped deep within Thorvald the tinker's eyes she suddenly sees Bruce. His eyes say, “No!”

The library disappears. Emma is sitting quietly with Bruce in a wooden hall. Next to the fire, the room is full of the warm light flickering over a multitude of carved gods. She suddenly tastes broth, ripe butter and cheese and smoke. She remembers that they are talking about spring; perhaps an expedition when the ice breaks to Norway. Emma tells Thorvald, “This year I will come.”

Thorvald is unhappy, “That fool poet Kormac will be there. He will cause trouble. He always causes trouble with you around.” Thorvald reminded her of the nuisance Kormac had created. He held out his hands and with his fingers countered all the times the poet had caused strife. Thorvald concluded that his obsession with Steingerd led to poetry. As everyone knows, poetry results in litigation. The lawsuits sometimes ended in legal duels, split thumbs, shattered swords and blood. Thorvald preferred to make swords rather than use them, and asked his brother to fight on his behalf. But everyone was tiring of the mischief.

Steingerd told her husband she alone would make a choice as to how she spent her time. She had told the same to Kormac.

Emma watched as minutes and days started to pass. The winter thawed. She watched Kormac prepare his ship. Kormac’s brother announced he would come as well. Thorvald invited his brother, but Thorvald's brother remembered the last lawsuit, weighed up the odds and went fishing instead.

Days became weeks, passing almost before Emma could taste them. Thorvald had misgivings when finally they sailed, but the voyage was uneventful, and Thorvald and Kormac sailed their long boats together. They steered their ships using a tiller, an oar strapped to the back of the boat. Steingerd took turns on the tiller. She became competent at navigating at sea.

On arrival, the Icelanders were met by King Harald. Kormac was welcomed into the King’s court as a courtier. The other Icelanders took up separate lodgings in the town. Thorvald commenced a trade in making and repairing metal goods and established a small forge at the back of a two-story stone house.

A couple of weeks after they arrived, Kormac came to visit Steingerd.

Time slowed, and Emma caught her breath.

Steingerd was spinning thread from wool using a drop spindle. The spindle, a straight stick three hand lengths long, and weighed by a stone whorl, already had a yard of thread tied around it. With her right hand, she drew out some hands-length of wool fibers from her left hand. When happy with the thickness of the fibers, she set the whorl moving, twisting the fiber into yarn. The newly spun yarn then was wound with the rest onto the spindle, and she started to draw the fibers down again.

Emma watched as Nick entered the room, and looked at her. There was a smile of desperation in his eye.

Kormac watched for a moment, then fixed his eyes on the other women-folk and motioned them to leave.

Steingerd asked him, "So you have come to learn to spin?"

Kormac thought for a moment, "You are very slow. Perhaps I could show you how to spin faster."

Steingerd's eyes flashed, "Don’t be foolish, the fleece is coarse and..."

Then she saw a smile at the corners of his mouth. Too late she started to rise, spindle and fiber still in hand. He stepped behind her and pulled her onto him, matching his body to hers. He reached up and caught her two hands at the wrist.

Kormac said, "Let me be your bench."

Steingerd laughed, "But my feet cannot reach the ground."

Kormac said, "Neither did your spindle."

Steingerd smiled and twisted her bare feet around his ankles; she said, "Caught you."

Steingerd relaxed a little into him, warning, "My husband is nearby. One of the girls will fetch him."

Kormac said, "Yes. He will come, shouting and panting up the stairs. But you are only showing me how to spin. Or I am showing you how to spin faster. I cannot remember. Please continue, don’t let me interfere."

Steingerd started to draw the fibers back into form, feeling his arms become light, following her movements.

Kormac said, close to her left ear, "Besides, the tinker is in my debt, and we will not come to blows because his brother remains home."

Steingerd felt a thrill of electricity and spun the whorl flat and fast.

Kormac said, "I will tell him you are simply spinning the thread for a shirt for me."

Steingerd frowned, "This thread is not for you. It is for the witch Gunhild, the new wife of the king's son, Eric. She has been sitting here with me."

Kormac's hands tensed, "What have you been speaking of? You and I have been hurt grievously by the love curse of a witch."

Steingerd said, "Gunhild is different. She and I have exchanged life stories. I have told her of your pursuit of me. She told me how she rescued the King's son, Eric, by the White Sea one past summer. And how she bewitched him with her eyes."

Kormac became more direct and quieter, "Has she spoken of the king?"

Steingerd said, "Gunhild told me you need have no fear of the King. Both the King and her Eric trust you. He is minded to make you a captain when we raid."

Kormac asked "We?"

Steingerd felt his breath on her neck.

Steingerd said, "Gunhild has persuaded Eric to take her back to the White Sea, with the King. And me."

She spun her head around and looked into his eyes, and then found his lips with hers. She kissed him deeply, feeling his momentary confusion quickly warming to her fire.

She pulled back a little, "Do you know why I just kissed you?"

He released her wrists, encircling her waist instead, and she leaned back into him.

Kormac said, "No. I don’t care". And this time he kissed her as deeply as he held her.

Steingerd said, "Gunhild is preparing me a potion, which will let me bewitch you with my eyes. I will forever be within your eye."

She disentangled herself from him and, walking a little way, carefully put down the spindle. Then she turned to face him. She walked back to him and sat on his knees facing him, as a wife sits with a husband.

Steingerd took his face in her hands and gave him a deeper kiss. She pulled back to find his eyes closed with tears.

Kormac said, "I would stay with you from now if you agreed. You do not need a potion to bewitch me. That is not the problem."

For the fourth time, she kissed him, this time starting with his eyes. Steingerd asked, "And what is our problem, man that I used to love?"

Kormac looked at her and said, "Your love changes with the weather."


A breeze picks up dust from the year past and the motes of dust swirl in the air. Emma suddenly smelled lavender.

*

The baby dragon hid deeper in the shadows. She blinked, pools of bright blue eyes staring out into the library. Her head was full of word pictures and stories that had leaked from the books around her.

Her scales were luminescent, blues and grays flickering through her coils. Cold, small and uncertain, she rolled herself back into a ball and tried to shut her eyes.

Feet moved around her and suddenly there was a shout.

The baby dragon uncoiled and opened her eyes. The little dragon saw a girl with flaming red hair looking at her. For a moment their eyes touched. Then the girl turned with her mouth wide open and said "OMG!" and turned and shouted to her friends. In a flash, the little dragon scuttled under the shelves from the Children and Young Persons section across the floor into English Plays and Poetry and Literature in Other Languages.

The little dragon heard angry voices and stretched out touching all the dimensions of the world around her. Then, she climbed onto the lower shelves and scrambled up the stack to the French literature section. The books moved over a little to let her in, and she recoiled and snuggled her body in behind the books. She lay there; only her head was exposed, trying not to cry.

Next to her was a large blue picture book. Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry shifted in its place and came a little closer. The little dragon raised its head and hissed in fear, but the book posed no threat. Gradually the little dragon relaxed. She tasted the book by licking its cover. Strange impressions ran through her mind: foxes, deserts and boa constrictors. She imagined herself alone and sad, flying through space and then falling to Earth.

This book was different to the other books the little dragon had met since she burst into the world. It did not ask, "Why are you here?" or "Are you on the right shelf?" Instead, this book merely touched her. The book said, with some regret, "You have a world of stories in you, but you are mortal. Ephemeral. You have been left here to fend for yourself. You only have four thorns to defend yourself against the world."

The little dragon's head slumped onto the shelf, and a tear formed in her eye. She looked at the book. She desired the book to be her friend.

The book rippled its pages, "It cannot be. I am immortal. I can only make your shelf a little more comfortable. You will have to make your way in the world yourself. I will be friendly, but I cannot be your friend. I must not tame you."

The little dragon wept. She was upset that the book would not be her friend. Her tears fell onto the wooden floor of the Library. The tears formed a small pool.

All around there was the sound of shouting and running feet. The Little Dragon heard a commotion and saw the lightning flash and thunder roar in the center of the library. The book told her that the disturbance was centered on top of the Chief Librarian's table. With a shout, the last of the people ran out of the Library.

The Little Dragon stopped weeping and wondered what was happening.

The book said, "In Betty's library, some of the books are awakening. In the dark of night, they have been stalking their prey. And, as they consume other books, they grow, The stories they once told begin to twist and turn, and the world starts to change."

The little dragon looked at the book and rubbed her head along the cover, wondering what the book would feel like if she ate it. She made a gentle growling sound from deep within her throat.

The book continued, "There are many dragons like you and none. You are unique and yet the same. If you grow, you will soon be larger than this Library. Right now, you are small. Small as you are, soon you will need to make a choice."

Lightning flashed, a page was ripped from one of the books and floated high above. A maelstrom started to swirl around the Chief Librarian's desk. The books chained to the desk were snapping at each other, fighting without quarter with fel power.

The book asked, "Will you become one of the books fighting over there?"

The little dragon suddenly felt a cold rush of air.

She turned and saw four people enter the library, including the girl with the flame red hair. The four started to run towards the Chief Librarian's desk.

The books all around her whispered, "Betty!" and shuffled in excitement.

The book said, "The books that fight hold these mortals bound. Sometimes they cannot break free, and they stay trapped within the story."

The little dragon growled again and shifted in her place. She came further out onto the shelf and shook her body out of the shadows. Small dark wings flickered in the light.

The book said, "It is time to decide."

*

Sarah saw the puddle and then the Little Dragon's eye. She called out in joy and dived for the stack.

Emma tasted lavender. With a jolt, Emma found herself back in the library. The maelstrom around Betty’s desk had increased. Betty was still battling in slow motion to get to her desk and separate the fighting books. But Emma herself was now standing still. Nick had turned back to her, his arms reaching out. She frowned. She could not see Sarah anywhere.

Emma turned her head and searched. She saw Sarah slipping along the floor, into a stack of adult non-fiction. Emma strained to see what had caught her attention. Large frightened eyes stared out from the shelves. Emma turned to get a better view. The eyes were deep blue. The eyes illuminated a small stub snout, with dark black nostrils, and small soft spikes that looked like they would bend if you cuddled it. Small wings were extended, testing the air. A tiny wisp of smoke rose from a soft mouth, full of teeth yet to develop.

For a moment, Emma was torn. Then a stray thought hit her: she had the sword, and maybe she could get the dragon as well. A second stray thought came in short succession. If she had the sword and a dragon, then she could fly to the lost city. Her eyes widened, and she tossed her head. She did not know any lost cities.

She watched as Sarah hit the floor and slid to the little dragon. It half-flew and half-jumped into her arms. For a moment the girl and dragon touched noses, and the girl cooed to the dragon. Then it coiled around her and snuggled its head under her neck. Then the little dragon shut her eyes, just as Nick fell onto Emma.

The library disappeared once more. Once again, she was back in the wool spinning room, watching the world from Steingerd’s eyes.

For a moment Kormac and Steingerd were tangled and then Emma saw a curl of arrogance in Kormac's mouth. He took her love for granted. She jumped away and hit at him. As her blows rained down, Thorvald burst up the stairs. He demanded to know what happened. Despite Kormac's predictions, Thorvald drew his sword. Emma saw a gleam in his eyes and wondered whether Bruce was watching from the back of his eyes.

Suddenly the room was full of women-folk who rushed in to part them. During the standoff, Steingerd smiled and walked to her window. She looked down onto the courtyard below. Gunhild had been waiting below, as they had agreed, to send word to King Harald Greycoat. As planned, Steingerd signaled Gunhild, who started to run. Emma looked a second time. Gunhild ran just like Betty.

King Harald Greycoat arrived shaking his head. He said to Thorvald and Kormac, "You are very troublesome people to keep in order. You may settle this peacefully according to your law, or you may agree to allow me to settle this matter between you". Thorvald and Kormac agreed to the King making an order and attended him in his hall. Erik and Gunhild stood next to the King as he spoke. King Harald Greycoat said, "I have heard of your past disputes. I would have this settled now because I have need of you all."

He continued, "One kiss is atoned by Kormac's assistance in you making landfall. The next kiss is Kormac's because he once saved Steingerd from rogues. But, the other two kisses, he shall pay two ounces of gold."

Later that night, in the King's Mead Hall, Kormac sang a poem to mark the King's decision. He sang of his despair and shattered dreams. He sang of the gold of the otter's well gleaming and the treasure of the fire dragon, and how he almost possessed both. Steingerd sat in the shadows of the hall, watching Kormac trading rhymes with the King's men, thinking of his visit, her heart burning with white fire. Did he want her for herself, or did he want something different?

Steingerd’s eyes flashed as she listened to his song and her blood ran red hot. She stormed from the hall.

Winter fell, and the company withdrew to the Kings Halls, playing games, listening to stories eating and drinking. In those days there was peace then between Thorvald and Kormac. Kormac sought Thorvald's iron, and Thorvald's sought Kormac's influence. Steingerd refused to be seen in Kormac's private company.

Finally, the wind-wolves left for colder realms. As the days became longer and the Northern ice melted, Harald Greycloak finalized plans to travel into the west. There was keen interest in the venture. He attracted a host of ships to the White Sea which was rich in ivory, skins, and amber. The king appointed Kormac as a captain in that host, and Thorvald also came, each man in charge of his own longboat.

On their way to the way to the White Sea, Thorvald sailed very close to Kormac while they were navigating a narrow sound. Upset, Kormac swung his steering-oar and hit Thorvald. The blow was to the head, and Thorvald collapsed. He fell unconscious to the floor of the deck. However, Kormac's move had upset the balance of his own boat, and he struggled to get control of it again.

Steingerd had been on the deck sitting beside Thorvald. She took his place holding the tiller. With a glint in her eye, she turned her ship and ran down Kormac's ship, capsizing it and tipping all aboard into the freezing cold water.

No loss of life occurred, and the crews worked to refloat Kormac's boat with no loss of time. Steingerd emptied a bladder of water over Thorvald, bringing him back to a semblance of health.

As before, the king offered to settle the matter between them. With a grim smile, he gave judgment that Thorvald's hurt was atoned for by Kormac's upset.

In the evening they went ashore and set up their tents for the night. Thorvald retired immediately, still unwell. The host sat down to eat their nightly meal.

Kormac offered Steingerd a drink of mead from his cup.

Steingerd looked at him and asked, "And what of the weather today?"

Kormac looked at her, so far from home. They walked away from the noise of the host, up to the soft-grey of the rock platform that ran next to the bay. The western sun was setting the night sky on fire, reflecting in the still water of the vast sea. In the evening light, they were young again. He said, "You confuse me more than ever."

She said, "I can fix the error our lives have become.”

He looked puzzled. She did not hear Nick say, "This is just a story. Let it pass."

Emma and Steingerd say, “We can love you forever. We can stay here in this moment, forever.”

She withdraws the small flask Gunhild had given her and drank it.

Other memories wash over her, crowding out her own. Emma shut her eyes. She tasted the words, “I was fostered like all the rest but my life was right. In the grand halls of the Icelanders, the elderly taught the young, explaining error and success through hard life-tasks.”

The book tightened its grasp on her, and she started to change. Memories swirled around her. Emma thought, “We were fostered...”

She opens her eyes and for a moment is lost on a wild Scottish beach, her snapshots blowing in the wind and rain. She grabs at the pictures twisting in the wind. She searches her mind but the moment flees as a man clamps a hand on her shoulder. Fear grips her tight, “I am unreal, awash in time. Full of memories of another person.” Then, those memories crowd out her own. Her snapshots disappear into the distance.

She travels back to the start of the story.

She heard herself, "I was fostered like all the rest, but my life was good. In the halls of the Icelanders, I am safe inside this book, I will live and never die. I am immortal."

*

Back in the Library, the maelstrom raged. Nick shook Emma's shoulder. She was unresponsive as he called her name. Then she started to become insubstantial, fading from the world.

Emma dreamed she was Steingerd; images streaming from every direction.

In the brazier
dull and cold
that was my heart
you softly came
and dropped a spark

We were protected from winter, safe from the wind-wolves raging outside. During those long dark days, we did not leave our farmsteads. Men and women, sitting together in the light of the fires. Eating, praying, loving and playing over the dark months.

In front of the hearth fire, Irish slaves drew whalebone combs through my long hair.

I played checkers and chess with my foster brothers, teasing them as I moved pieces across the patterned wood to thwart or permit their narrow tactics. We spun thread and mended torn the flesh of summer’s toil. We crafted soft cloth. We carved stories of the gods in driftwood and bone.

I learned to dance above the clouds.

For a moment, the Scottish beach reappears.  I shake his arm off and stand. I look at him, in the half-light of lightning flashes and filtered moon. Rain plastering his hair. His eyes wild. Unbidden a different image appears, young and unscarred. Right and wrong full heavy on his skin.

Urgently he whispered, "It was next to a hearth fire as winter faded to spring that I conceived a young love for you. I remember you. You were a fiercely independent woman."

Competing memories crowd my head. A whale cast up on the beach and sheep to be taken up to spring pasture. Instead, he dallied, playing with my hair by the cooling fire watched only by the gods carved in wood.

Evening shadows were growing, the cold creeping in. Mulled wine, an old leather couch, and teddy bears. Catching falling stars and telling nonsense stories:

Once upon a time,
Far, far away
There was a little girl
Living within a woman

She remembered the kisses: the sort of kiss that starts in the heart of a star. Elemental, primary, essential. We are the stuff of stars and one day will return to them, together forever.

She said, “You sung your word spells, binding my heart. Playing with my heart.”

He says, "Come lie here with me. Let us go back in time, when you and I were still young. When you had a different name and I was a different person."

She turns from him, "To fail again in your half-love? To taste the honey of your kisses and the mead upon your breath? To feel your fists rough upon my skin and your practiced violence?"

He says, "I have changed. I have been into the world. A thousand years have passed. I miss you. We were meant to be thus. Come back to me."

He catches her in his eye. She sees her image drift back into the center of his eye.

She shook her head remembering how their heart lines thawed in a cold sun. She remembered the marriage bargains and how they were betrothed. How he left, that sun-filled day, to build their marriage hall on his mother’s land down in the bay.

Alone, that first time, suddenly aware of the sharp reality of life. How the hearth fire might die. How they would have to work to ensure sufficient food for the winter dark. Her eyes opened, and she ceased to be a child.

He remembered collecting driftwood and dragging the posts for the hall. His brother assisted him when the sheep were safely pastured.

He turns to her and says, "It was not my fault.”

She says, “I will not forgive you.”

He says, “A witch stood in the sea just off the heads causing ships to founder. It was a fey curse from her, not age nor remiss, no fault of mine that my love waned as I built our marriage hall. I sought the comfort of no other bed as our wedding passed without me speaking binding vows.”

He turns from her and draws a skin of mead. His lips are cracked and dry. He drinks, lightning illuminates a stone cairn, further down the beach.

She follows his eyes, looking at the cairn. A burial mound to some long forgotten defense of this beach. Lightning and shadows dart from the stone shades fleeing from the violence.

On the side a dull red image, flickers with its resolve against dark and storm. The image of an enormous snake, twisted around a sword, still glowing in the reflected light. She turned and looked down back along the beach. Through rain squalls the glimmer of a fire.

He empties the skin and throws it onto the beach. His voice now fueled, takes on a different tone, “While I labored on our marriage hall, you combed your hair.”

“I milked and churned butter against the winter cold.”

“While I shaped posts you danced and laughed.”

“Your resolve weakened. You hung on the edges of my people’s hall like a wolf in winter. You avoided work.”

His voice is slurred by alcohol. He shouts against the wind, “Cease this old complaint. I was young. By the gods, stop this torment!”

He swings awkwardly and reaches for his great sword. Just as he has a thousand times before.

Her eyes open wide. The name of the sword falls into her mind, “Skrymir”. She sinks back to the ground, searching for a real home among the slippery rocks of this cold foreign beach.

Part 3: The Silent Order

Theory and Practice


Deep in the lost city of Ancora Tu, Sarah, and the little dragon climbed into a statue and waited to see if they were being chased.

When she was sure that they were the only ones, Sarah removed her mask. While they waited for evening light, Sarah fed the dragon some diamonds she picked up along the way, hushing the dragon when the baby crunched them too loudly. Sarah was not sure whether diamonds were good for dragons. Besides, Sarah had run out of teaspoons and diamonds did not seem to hurt her. There were lots of diamonds around, and the baby dragon was good at sniffing them out.

The baby gave a satisfied burp, touched Sarah's nose and then snuggled around her neck under her hair.



Then the baby shut her eyes. Sarah gave the baby a thorough pat, taking care to avoid the sharp spikes. She was starting to feel a bit anxious and a little guilty about the baby's lack of a name. She thought, "All the good ones are taken." Rodi said there were more important things to worry about. If push came to shove, she could call the baby, 'Spike.' Sarah said she would rather drain her body of blood and turn her hair black than call the baby such a horrid name.

Sarah got out her phone and pressed the 'on' button. It was more out of habit than hope because there was no signal in the lost city. Sarah thought to herself, "Which is probably how the city got lost in the first place." The phone was almost out of charge, but a brief message flashed up. It said, "You should recharge your phone soon." The message was vaguely comforting.

While the phone had a charge, she had taken lots of pictures of the baby dragon, Rodi and her. Rodi had also taken pictures of her pockets full of gold and gems before they became commonplace and cumbersome. But she had nowhere to post the pictures until Rodi found a way to reactivate the old tower they had discovered in the middle of the lost city. While Rodi tried to build a transmitter, she hunted for food, and a way out of the city.

When Sarah had escaped from the Library, Rodi had helped her to avoid questions and parents. Later that day they had regrouped at a diner on the other side of town and sat down to plan what to do. Rodi said that Emma was missing and that the police were questioning Nick. But Sarah was not able to throw much light on what happened to Betty, Nick or Emma other than, as adults, they really were not all that relevant to her. She did recall that Nick and Emma had tripped over each other and that Nick seemed to be upset about it. Which sort of made sense because Emma had killed his car with a sword. Sarah was just beginning to think that Rodi was right to talk to because Rodi was non-judgmental and just listened and nodded.

So it was a bit of a surprise when Rodi asked, "Where are you going to hide the dragon?"

Sarah had not thought about this, and was silent for a moment, "I can't leave her in the woods, I guess she will have to live in my bedroom."

Rodi said, "I do not want you to think I am making a moral call here, but I have heard a couple of people describe the place you call your bedroom."

Sarah became defensive, "I would, like, make room for the baby on one of my shelves..."

Rodi was quiet.

Sarah said, "It is not that bad. She does not need a floor. She has wings."

Rodi let it go for a little longer, and Sarah said, "I can't start cleaning my bedroom now. I would be there for years. There are things under stuff on the floor I do not want to find. I was just going to find a boyfriend and move out."

Rodi said, firmly, "I don't think your bedroom is an appropriate place for a baby dragon to grow up."

Sarah looked glum, "This is unfair. Why are you picking on me."

Just then, the waitress screamed, and ran out of the diner.

Sarah said, "Oh no! Where did the dragon go?"

The little dragon hopped up on the counter and walked along knocking a cookie jar over the edge. Rodi caught the cookies. The little dragon flew over to a table where the waitress had been stacking cutlery and started to eat the teaspoons.

Rodi and Sarah looked at the baby.

Sarah said, "Stop her. She can't eat teaspoons."

Rodi was looking at the baby's teeth tear the teaspoons into little bits. Rodi looked at Sarah and said, "Ah! That is where they go."

Sarah said, "But I want her to be a Vegan."

Rodi said, "You know; you should not push your views on others like that. I think the baby likes teaspoons."

Sarah frowned and thought for a bit, "Maybe Vegans can eat teaspoons."

In the silence, they heard the waitress screaming again.

Sarah said, We better get out of here!"

Rodi said, "We better take some extra teaspoons, the baby really likes these. What else does she eat?"

Sarah said, "No! We can't just steal other people's teaspoons."

Rodi shrugged, "I agree, but your baby has to eat."

Sarah said, "Our baby."

Because they had no money, Sarah ended up writing out an IOU for the teaspoons.

Over the next hour, as they made their way carefully around the outskirts of the town vaguely in the direction of Rodi's place. On the way, they discovered that the dragon liked to eat some other things besides teaspoons, such as car tires and electricity poles.

After the electricity pole, Rodi stopped and said that the dragon could not come to Rodi's place, "Maybe we should take the baby back home."

Sarah started to feel a bit desperate and like maybe it would be a good idea for her to get a sword. She said, "The baby does not have any family except for us. You and I are responsible." The last bit was hard to say, and because Sarah had never thought in those terms before, she muttered, "I must be mental."

Rodi said, "Maybe we could ask the monks to look after the dragon."

The little dragon woke up with a start and glared at Rodi. Then the baby nudged Sarah, looking for a teaspoon.

Sarah's eyes became mirrors, and she also glared at Rodi for a moment, suddenly thinking that maybe Rodi was not the right person to raise a baby dragon with and that Rodi had not heard a word she had said.

Sarah growled, "No! We are going to keep the baby."

Rodi said, "Ask the baby dragon where it's home is."

The baby dragon thought about that for a moment. She weighed up all the risks. There were, for instance, wild dogs, fierce goannas, big full grown dragons, deadly spiders and almost no teaspoons. Still, in the end, all things considered, the baby decided that her home was infinitely better than the monastery or a shelf in Sarah's bedroom. So she smiled at Sarah and called up a portal big enough to suck them all in and back to Ancora Tu.

*

The Library was quiet. Late afternoon light filtered through the main windows of the library flickering with a gentle fall of snow. Betty sat at her desk, empty of troublesome books, deep in thought.

Finally, she spoke, "Mabel. I need your advice. Are you there?"

Only the sound of passing cars, and the muffled crunch of people walking home from the shops. Betty thought, "Back to their homes, with fires and dinners and families."

Betty spoke into the silence, "Mabel! Where is Emma? What happens now?"

Betty's words faded into the shadows.

One of the shadows detached itself from the stacks and shuffled into the light. Trevor looked at her and said, "Betty, there is no one here except for me."

Betty's face reddened a little, and she mumbled something about daydreaming, "What are you doing here?"

Trevor said, "I thought I should stay back tonight. Just in case. You know, because of the bobcat."

Betty said, "There was no bobcat." Trevor said, "I know," and he wandered over to the fire to feed it another log. He said, conversationally, "Mabel was a strict old bird. Never saw her smile once." Betty was silent, and Trevor continued, "I know you ask her questions. No need to explain. I still talk to my girls."

Betty said, "I guess I am not doing any good here. Perhaps things will be better in the morning."

Trevor said, "Maybe. Mabel always said that moldy bread cheese would not improve overnight. She told me you had to deal with it when you saw it. If not, the mold would be everywhere."

Betty said, "Mabel said lots of things. But she was probably right about mold."

There was banging on the main doors. Betty thought, "Young kids" and once again she wondered what happened to Sarah.

Trevor shuffled to the main doors and turned in surprise, "It is that young guy, Nick. Doesn't he know about closing hours?"

Betty paused and said, "Let him in." She wondered whether she should add, "But keep an eye on him."

Trevor shrugged and fumbled with the lock.

Nick came into the Library, his eyes wild. He said, "Where is Emma?"

Betty said to Nick, "Come and sit down. I have some questions for you first."

She turned to Trevor, "Boil the urn, then come sit too. I need you here."

She said, "When the police arrived, the Library was quiet. I had separated the books that were fighting and put them somewhere safe. But the Police took you away. Why?"

Nick shook his head, "It was a misunderstanding. Just a family thing."

She persisted, "Let us put all our cards on the table."

Nick said, "I get mistaken for my brother. There is a warrant out for his arrest. When I came to town, I went to the station and introduced myself to stop this sort of thing from happening. I guess that someone in town stirred them up. So this time they called the investigating officer in from Newton and kept me a while. I told them all I knew about my brother, again, and they fed me cookies and talked about the ballgame."

Betty asked, "Did they ask you about Emma?"

Nick said, "No. They do not know what happened here in the library." He paused, "Lots of bad things happened in the world today. A bobcat in a library doesn't rate on anyone's scale. The police station was buzzing with a nuclear explosion somewhere and the outbreak of war."

Betty shook her head. Nick stopped and thought, "Wait. They made jokes about someone seeing a bobcat. It seems that are looking for Sarah. They believe that she played a practical joke on some poor waitress over at the diner this afternoon. Someone said something about another bobcat. She doesn't have a pet does she?"

Betty shrugged and turned his answers over in her mind. Nick jumped up and helped Trevor to pour coffee. The fire crackled in the background.

The sky was coloring reds and oranges, and the street lamps suddenly came on. Trevor walked back to the main windows and blew against the window, creating a light mist. As he waited for the others, he drew shapes on the foggy window surface.

Nick waited until Betty looked at him then he said, asked, "Ok. I have answered your question. Now Emma. What happened to Emma?"

But Betty was watching Trevor and the drawing taking shape on the window glass.


Betty watched the old man, drawing on the window. The world became quiet as his finger drew a long serpent, coiled around itself in an intricate design. Nick paused and watched him as well. After a moment, Nick said, "I have seen that before." 





Betty looked at him. Nick shrugged, "In a dream. Emma and I have been having the same dreams. From the book, the one we all started to read for the book club."

She asked, "Some of us were also dragged into your dreams. Where did you see this design, in your dream?"

Nick said, "It is, was, on a cairn of rocks on a Scottish beach. The place where I will die." Then he corrected himself, "Near the place I will die." He struggled, "Kormac died, not me."

Betty said, "You are not going to die anytime soon."

Betty sipped her coffee as Trevor finished the drawing by carefully placing mountains and wolves into the picture. Nick said, "I have not seen any of those details before."

Betty said, "Perhaps they tell us something else."

Nick said, "What?"

Betty said, "There may be a story here. Or it may express a real relationship real things. For example, if it is a map, it tells us where the mountains and wolves are."

Nick protested, "How does that help?"

Betty shrugged, "Perhaps it is just a story. But if it is a map, maybe it will let us locate the cairn again. It might tell us where the beach is. The mountains are high points, perhaps islands. The wolves are settlements."

Trevor finished, his hands hanging by his side, staring at the picture. Betty went and led him back to the fire saying, "It is time we got you home." Betty forestalled other questions from Nick with a finger to her lips. At her urging, Nick took a photograph of the picture as it started to fade and then they took Trevor home.

After they had dropped Trevor off, Nick asked, "Where to now?"

Betty was suddenly aware that she was in a car with someone she did not know at all, "You and I need to talk. But not at my library. Too many can hear us there."

Nick shook his head and started to drive back towards Main Street, "OK. Your call, but where."

Betty ignored the question, "Drive to the monastery."

Nick said, too quickly, "How can they help?"

Betty said, "They are expecting us both."

Nick brought the car to a stop, "Look. I want to help. But if I am to help, tell me how."

Betty thought, "I think I am on safe grounds here. You and your brother worked on restoring books in your father's bookbinding business. We have had problems with these books. A couple of people associated with your brother and now you have gone missing." She held up her hand against his protests, "Hear me out. I do not think you caused any of the disappearances."

Nick said, "But, how can the monastery help?"

Betty said, "I am not sure they can. But the Silent Order has also been having trouble with a book as well."

Nick paused. He looked closely at Betty, wondering if she had a tear in her eye. He asked a different question, "Why did Emma stay behind? Why didn't she come back here?"

Betty had asked herself those questions. Why did Emma choose to stay bound with an unpleasant brute like Kormac, in a relationship where love had gone bad? Perhaps she thought her real life was not going anywhere? Or perhaps it was just that the book was more interesting? Maybe she craved something else?

Betty said, "Sometimes people get lost in a book. Books can be an escape from dull or miserable lives. Sometimes a good book can pick up your spirits, or teach you how to deal with problems, or just give you time to think. They change lives. But sometimes a person gets lost in a book. Instead of the book being just a moment, it becomes a lifetime."

Nick protested, "But Emma has disappeared. I felt her fade. Ordinary people do not go like that. Why didn't I fade as well? I wanted to stay there too, with her. I wanted to change that story. I wanted to change him into someone nice."

Betty pulled out a handkerchief to hide a sniffle, "Ordinarily, you can't change stories." Then she pulled a small square of paper out of her purse and gradually unfolded it, "I think I know why you are still with us, and why you did not die with Kormac on the beach."

She smoothed the page flat, "In the fight between the books, a single page was torn out. It is the final page of the Saga: the conclusion to Kormac's Saga."

*

Nick blinked and suddenly he is back on a remote Scottish beach. Emma is facing the dragon cairn looking into her hands.

He comes up behind Emma.

“You torment me even here!” the warrior standing behind her marvels. “Have you come to witness my doom?”

Emma lifts her eyes from the snapshot in her hand. She shuts her eyes, against the beach, suddenly lost. Emma wants the comfort of her home. She does not want some waking nightmare, burdened with the past or someone else's story. Maybe pills or the bottle might help. Or, perhaps she was there now, lying on the floor, poisoned with alcohol and remorse. Or perhaps there was too much energy in that last book the club read together of that long dead poet and his hopeless love.

She opens her eyes, feeling the wind and rain. There are snapshots all around her. She grabs a second picture, twisting in the wind. A touch of normalcy. Here she is, holding the hands of… Names suddenly fail her. But there she is as a child. She is with them, facing her future. She thought grimly, "Probably tricked briefly into turning for the camera." She wondered if she had protested and cried the deceit. She searches her mind but the moment flees as the man clamps a hand on her shoulder.

Fear grips her tight, and she shakes her head. She hears her voice cry, “I am unreal, awash in time. Full of memories of another person. Take me home.”

Kormac looks at her and with his second hand grabs her wrist. Violently, he pulls her to him, "Do not torment me wraith! How can I take you home?"

She cries out, "Change the story!"


Suddenly the world starts to spin.

*

In the lost city of Ancora Tu, the little dragon was stalking butterflies.  Sarah was lying in a bower of flowers and broken marble a little higher in the large tower in the center of the lost city. High above her Rodi was working on a transmitter to call for help.

The little dragon had the butterfly in its sights, and it crouched down, moving her tail from side to side. It pounced, lightning fast, petals flying everywhere. The yellow butterfly came to rest on the dragon’s nose, and for a moment the little dragon went cross-eyed.

Sarah called the dragon, and she came, looking for a scratch and a cuddle. The butterfly came along for the ride. Sarah said, "Today I am going to give you, Dragon, a name and you will be mine forever and ever." The butterfly looked at Sarah expectedly.

The little dragon looked at Sarah with big blue eyes and smiled a toothy smile. Sarah was very pleased with how the little dragon’s teeth were progressing. She had been worried that the diet might have worn them down. Instead, they had become sharp and pointy. Sarah smiled. The little dragon thought, "I love you so much. I cannot live without your smile. Today I will give you your first body piercing, and you will become mine forever and ever. And when you grow wings, I will teach you how to fly."

The little dragon smiled at Sarah, and Sarah smiled at the little dragon, but the butterfly shook its head and fluttered away.

*

Kormac spat onto the ground and turned to find his sword.

Betty's voice brought Nick back to Earth. He heard her calling, "Nick!"

Nick turned to Betty, his eyes unfocused. She continued, "Have you been to the monastery before? Is there something I should know?"

Nick looked away from her, unsure of everything. His eyes rested on the strange shape of the sword, still stuck in his audio system. He had thrown a couple of towels over it the night before.

Betty's voice showed some concern, "Are you alright?"

Nick said, "Give me a moment."

He was thinking, fast. For a moment he could feel the blows that would rain down on him from the Scottish Giant. Part of him told him that he was going to die back there, near that beach.

He said, "I don’t know where to start." His mind began to whirl like a top. He held onto the steering wheel, his knuckles white.

He said carefully, "Put that page away."

Betty's eyes widened, and she refolded it carefully, "What happened Nick?"

Nick said, "The book pulled me back there for a moment. Emma is still there. On the beach. We have to get her back. I have to get her back. I love her."

He shook his head, relief flowing through his body. Betty said, "What?"

He continued, "If I go back, I am going to get killed. My sword is here. The giant will smash me."

Betty said, "Hold on. You are Nick, and you are alive. Kormac died a thousand years ago."

Nick said, "When I am there, it is just as real. I have all his memories."

Betty said, "You have just read the book."

Nick said, "No. I have read the book a couple of times now. But I know things that are not in the book. I know the shape of things. I taste the taste of things. I want Emma. I made love to her on the heather. Don't tell me it is just a book!"

Betty said, very calmly, "Nick, it was just a book."

Nick turned to look at her, his face flaming with beads of sweat on his brow. He mumbled, “Right. I can show you.”

He tore his shirt off.

Betty fought the urge to open the car door and run.

Nick said, "Look at my back!"  He turned away from her, and she heard him stifle a tear.

She quickly checked no one was watching. Then, reluctantly, she turned her eyes to Nick's back, pale in the reflections of street lamps. She reached out and touched his back. His back was covered by a crisscross of small cuts and bruises. Then she saw the scratches made by fingernails and, on his right shoulder, two bite marks. She said to herself, "All recent."

She snapped herself out of it and said, "Put your shirt back on Nick. People must not see me in a car with a naked man. I would never live down the shame."

He asked, suddenly cold, "Do you believe me?"

Betty said, "I do not disbelieve you."

He shook his head, "That is not enough!"

Betty said quickly, "Wait. We are accumulating a lot of information, and it would be too easy to jump to conclusions that will not advance our interests."

Nick was struggling with his shirt in the confined driver’s seat, "Do we have the same interests here?"

Betty smiled, "Some. I want to get Emma back and I want you to stay safe." She said to herself, "And fully dressed."

Nick said, "I do not want you to get hurt either. But I do not want to go back to the monastery either. Why do we have to go?"

Betty said, "So you have been to the monastery before."

Nick looked at her, wondering how much he should tell her.

She said, "Everything."

He looked back down to the sword; his voice changed, "We have to get the sword back to Kormac."

She persisted, "Concentrate. The monastery."

He said, "My brother and I went there to rebind books a couple of years ago. Some were precious, so the librarian asked us to work in the scriptorium."

Betty cocked her head, and he continued, "It is through the rear door, past the well and over the stone bridge. They still have tabula plicata for fine work. They used to gild and bind their books. They still make gesso and wax tablets for sale in the monastery shop."

Betty thought of the little shop and nodded, "They sell sweet jam there. I know the path to the well. I wondered where the bridge went. How long did you work there?"

Nick said, "I helped bring in our tools but only stayed to help bind the large folios. My brother ended up staying there for a couple of weeks with the smaller books. It was about that time we bound a couple of old books at the town library - I think you were on holidays at the time."

Betty asked, "At the dormitory?  He stayed with the monks at the dormitory?"

He nodded.

She asked, "So, why don’t you want to go back?"

Nick was silent.

She said, "Nick when your brother ran from the police, could he have gone back to the monastery? Would the monks have accepted him?"

Nick shook his head, “I do not know where he is.” He paused, and sighed, “The monastery just creeped me out. I couldn’t work there; I felt like I was being watched and judged. But it was different with Trax. He liked the monastery. He liked the rhythm of the days, the silence, and the library.”

She said, “Maybe this is hard, but tell me why the police are after him.”

He said, “When Trax came back from the monastery, work dried up for a bit. My dad’s estate was sorted, and I decided to move town and start a new life. He began to bind books for a private collector in Newton. Apparently, there was some falling out between them, and they were seen arguing. The private collector has disappeared. The police interviewed Trax about it. He called me afterward, upset, and I drove back to take him to see our local attorney. By the time I got there, Trax had disappeared as well.”

Betty said, “You must have been worried.” When Nick did not reply, she continued, “Trax is a strange name, what is it short for?”

Nick said, “Everything has gone wrong. The police think I am lying to them. Now I am caught up in some other nightmare. Emma has gone missing, and I have a sword stuck in my car’s audio system.” His hands were moving in the air, and his voice was raised. “And now I am having life-like dreams about dying on a lonely Scottish beach.”

She said, "Nick, you are not going to die."

Nick put his head in his hands, “Ok, I don’t know whether to cry or laugh.”

Betty said calmly, "Neither. I want you to listen to what I am saying now. Nick, Emma and I brought Kormac and the sword back here through a portal. Not a dream, a portal."

He said, "But..."

Betty continued, "And the book has lost its last page, where Kormac meets his end."

Nick said, "If that is so, why doesn't Emma come back?"

Betty said, "There are a couple of possibilities. You told me she is still there. So either, she does not want to come back, or she cannot come back. Or both."

His voice changed a little, and Betty looked at him carefully. Nick said fiercely, "I want to be with her!"

Betty though carefully, "Sometimes when you read a book, bits of it rub off on you. I think a bit of Kormac is inside your head."

He looked pensive. Then he looked at the sword.

"There are two ways we go back. Usually, we just dream ourselves back. One time was different. That time I entered the world through a physical portal, in the form of the witch Gunhild. That time we brought Kormac and the sword back." She added quietly to herself, "And Gunhild gave Steingerd a love potion." She suddenly wondered whether the potion could be the problem."

Nick said, "Easy! Make another portal, and we will go grab her and bring her home."

Betty shook her head, "I cannot construct portals. I do not know how that one arose, although I have a suspicion. I am hoping that the monastery may be able to help."

Nick asked, "Why?"

Betty said, "The librarian there has been having the same problem with some of their books. It all sounds severe."

Nick said, "Is there another way?"

Betty said, "I only know of one other portal. The portal to the Lost City of Ancora Tu. But it does not go to where we need to go."


Interlude



There is magic in the air; magic in the books.

Below the town, in a candle-lit cloister Father Luis lights a cigarette to ward away the future. Wraiths dance in the shadows.

Insubstantial drifts of snow crowd around Betty’s library, forming grotesque shapes in the street lamps, but the beasts drifting in the air dare not pass the ward drawn on the front door.

Deep in Betty’s safe, Kormac’s Saga is busily chewing the last of the spring mattress patents. It had been a desperate fight and even in defeat, the patents are planning their next move. The Saga is missing its final page, the one that contained a disappointing ending where Kormac dies in bed and forfeits Valhalla. Instead there are now a number of new pages with a confusing set of line drawings about springs and beds. Words are starting to flow around the drawings, twisting and turning.

In the lost city of Ancora Tu, the Little Dragon is hiding with the yellow butterfly in a bunch of red mushrooms. She is remembering the Little Prince’s advice. “If you tame someone, you become responsible for them.” The Little Dragon is wondering whether taming humans might be overrated. Sadly, the body piercing did not go quite as planned and the Little Dragon has now missed a couple of meals on account of being unloved. She is starting to feel hungry.

Under the tower, in a mess of Rodi’s machinery, Rodi is holding a make-shift bandage to Sarah’s nose, trying to reassure her that the scar will disappear in time. Sarah is crying. Partly because of the hurt at the bite given her by her pet and partly to cover up her concern about how much bigger the dragon is going to get. She is also worried that, if she stops crying, Rodi might stop being nice to her.

Ivan, a Dentist, is staring at them from a safe distance, his pockets full of diamonds. He has pinched himself a couple of times, and has had to make unpleasant decisions about dropping gold in order to carry the gems. As he watches Sarah and Rodi he is wondering how many new investment houses he is going to be able to add to his portfolio. 

At the entrance to the portal, the other members of the expedition and Stang are arguing about how to get past the now closed portal into the lost city.

Genny is having dinner with Elizabeth, complaining about Bruce who has gone to play cards, or so he says.

The local police are interviewing Sarah’s former boyfriend who has made the mistake of being arrested after having drunk a fair amount of alcohol and who is now telling them how Sarah and him stole Bob Brown’s old Chevy and drove it into the lake (not his fault, the brakes were soft) which had led to his last confusing argument with Sarah. The police seemed really nice and were giving him more beer from time to time.

Betty and Nick are sitting in Nick’s small car. Betty is looking at Nick and trying to forget his chest. Unbidden she remembers preparing Steingerd a potion, which will let her bewitch Kormac with her eyes. Suddenly she is in a different smoke filled hall. Betty rises as the witch Gunhild, resting her hand on Steingerd’s shoulder. Steingerd is looking at Kormac drinking with a gleam in his eye and a poem on his tongue. Gunhild asks Steingerd, “What are you thinking?” Betty hears Emma murmur, “I will forever be within his eye". Betty wonders, “If you love someone who loves you, why do you need any sort of a potion?” Gunhild answers without a second thought, “When you are giving someone a second chance.” Betty shakes her head, “Ah, love gone wrong. A man has betrayed your trust. You have to be brave woman to go back a second time. Steingerd is being very brave with Kormac.” Steingerd turns and looks at Gunhild, “No!” Betty snaps back to the car, and a growl rises in her throat. She glares at Nick (who probably did not deserve the growl, but who was closest to hand).

But Nick does not hear Betty growl. He is looking at the sword. Part of him wants him to strap it around his pants and go hunting for an inn and to bed Steingerd. Another part of him is thinking of excuses to go home and to hop into his own bed. Unbidden he thinks about his bed which is completely empty of Emma. He frowns, “Kormac and Steingerd can go to hell.” If he can get Emma back to the real world, maybe he should trade his water bed for a spring mattress. He shakes his head and looks back at the sword, again completely missing the dagger in Betty’s eye.

Down Main Street, the town folk are behind their doors, cooking meals and watching the internet the way they used to watch their silent televisions. In the snow outside Betty’s house, tracks in the snow lead to her door. A candle maker has arrived in town, and finding Emma’s house empty, has made her way to knock on Betty’s door.

The Silent


Father Luis drew in one last breath of smoke and then sat for a moment in the night air, listening to the brook murmuring below him. In the distance he heard an owl call. Deeper still, he heard the painful passage of breath through his lungs and the uneven beat of his heart.

He grimaced and thought of lighting another cigarette. For a moment he imagined the passage of the smoke, deep into the recesses of his lungs, calming his anxious mind. Instead he stood, bent and time worn and, waiting for a moment for his thin frame to adjust, he walked back to the door of the library workshop safe from the fall of snow inside the covered walkway of the cloister.

It was as cold inside the workshop as it was outside, but the cold was not Father Luis's concern. He walked past the work benches where the diaries and pamphlets of the mystics of the church were being repaired and bound. At the end of the workshop a small staircase led upstairs to his office. He pushed open the door and looked inside. He nodded. A life's work spread before and around him. On one side of his desk a pile of books yet to be explored and described and catalogued. On the other, a small book, bound by a sylvan chain. Near an aged telephone, a note of a conversation with the town librarian.

His eyes raised themselves higher into the recesses of the roof above his desk. In the flickering light he saw the exposed oak beams of the roof, and the crisscross of shadowy spider webs. He stood in silence waiting for the image to stabilize. Sometimes, incautiously, he imagined the skeleton of a great mythic dragon hanging above his desk, its wings outspread. He wondered at this. Was it revelation or just the mind playing tricks? He blinked and looked again. Tonight, no dragon.

Father Luis tried to clear his mind of his last confrontation with Father Charlie. Father Charlie had worked down the other side of the library. Before he disappeared, Father Charlie had been busily scanning and fixing the texts of the mystics to publish them online.

Father Luis had been appalled. Most of the texts had never received any form of official sanction. He thought without judging them, "Just the wanderings of the lonely. Private musing that should have been left untouched. Private revelations." He thought of his imagined Dragon and involuntarily looked back into empty air, motes of dust flickering in the lamp light. Did he wish it to be there? Should he simply dismiss it? Or was it a warning, a private message? He paused again. Perhaps it was a warning to exercise care in these dark days, here in the engine room of the monastery. Or maybe just a sign of age and weariness. He sighed.

Against Father Luis’s silent approbation, before Father Charlie had left, silent and unannounced, he had changed pace and had concentrated on those texts that had at least received some form of official support. Father Luis tried to clear his mind, forcing himself to remember that some had been endorsed. Even the ones prophesying the end of the world in 1998. He felt the responsibility of the ages, frustrated at his incapacity to deflect Father Charlie’s enthusiasm into more profitable endeavors.

Father Luis thought, once again, if these texts had to be kept, they should be held in the tight control of the library, and not cherry-picked and passed into the hands of the desperate or the impressionable. Not without a cautious hand to guide them. Not without years of learning to enlighten them. Not without experience of the world and the cloisters and silence and an understanding of the loneliness of the lonely. He sat at his desk, and looked in silence at the work upon his desk. Then he reached for the book held by a chain. Valuable beyond imagination, this had been newly bound. His eyes brushed the name of the book, “The Mystical Explanation of the Canticle of the Canticles.”

Above him, an imaginary dragon hovered.


An Unexpected Death


Nothing is really unexpected in a novel.

Deep in the lost city of Ancora Tu, Ivan the Dentist’s pockets were full of diamonds. Over full. Lots of rocks were expected, preprogrammed, part of the story set out on page 22. But now Ivan was staring at Sarah and Rodi with an open mouth. They were not part of the story either.

At this point, in the story, Ivan was supposed to be walking along a deserted street in the lost city, whistling an unnamed tune, thinking aloud about how he can turn the diamonds into investment houses. He is, in fact, thinking about that, but he is silent and unmoving. He is watching Sarah and Rodi, who play no role in the book, and who should not be in the book. Ivan’s eyes narrowed. He did not like surprises.

Of course, although writers of novels often start sentences with “Unexpectedly” or “Suddenly,” Ivan knew deep down that there really are no surprises in a book. Novels are all carefully planned, with one word following another, like clockwork. Surprises happened outside a novel. Not here.

Ivan felt that this was a good thing because he was peculiarly ill-equipped to deal with surprises. His character had received the most cursory treatment by the writer. The ghost writer and the proofreader had missed some obvious opportunities to improve characterization. Because Ivan’s role in the book was restricted to pages 1, 3, 22 and 27, it was completely understandable that he did not feature on the back cover of the book or the line drawing on the front cover. Unlike those who did, he could not tap into any hidden reserves (such as an elegant mustache, a sartorial suit, or a pair of snoopers) from such sources. The writer had not even named the tune he was whistling. Instead, his whole life was wrapped up in less than ten short sentences, devoid of color and any hint of real life. He sighed and thought, with a degree of bitterness, his sole role was to play to the reader’s innate fear of whistling dentists with investment portfolios.

Not entirely devoid of life he corrected. He was, after all, a dentist. He could whistle. A professional, with all the training and status that this conferred. He could change teeth and whistle. Ivan himself had absolute confidence in his abilities as a dentist. He was positive that, given the circumstances, he could pull or push any number of teeth. He thought of his writer again and his face twisted in anger. Call himself a writer! Poor grammar and no character development to speak of. It wouldn’t have taken much: a checkered shirt, a fashionable lisp, or limp, a girlfriend back in town waiting at the bar. With a bit of forethought, there could have been foreplay, romance, eyes, moons, a named tune (how hard was it to drop the name of a tune into a story) and all of the stuff that was not happening to Ivan, time after time.

But today had been different. Ivan was sure that there were rules against what had happened today. There was probably a person he could complain too.

The problems had started early. Ivan had just exited the car accident and was sitting in the ferns on the side of the cliff ready for his ‘off stage’ cross country hike to the Lost City when “Suddenly” and “Unexpectedly” he had a whole “out of book experience.”

Suddenly or Unexpectedly? Lies. All lies. Like deaths in a book. What a joke. Everything was planned in a book. Like most other characters in a book, Ivan occasionally wondered what it would be like to go through a planned ‘death’ during the novel. He stifled a laugh, ‘Suddenly he died.' By the writer. He thought, “Premeditated killings. Writers have full moral responsibility for every death they wrote into a story.” Yes, all well and good for the young lady with the meat ax to go on a rampage in the pie shop. But the person actually responsible for all those deaths, for the blood and chipped ax and the irreparable damage to whatever was destroyed was the writer. And the writer always got off scot-free. Ivan thought, “What about the writer!” and then added two more “!” to make the point. “Lock them up,” he growled.

Which completely overlooked the fact that most writers are already locked up, and as a result are a bit overweight, socially awkward, addicted to peanut butter, short sighted, underpaid and inclined to take out their frustrations on entirely innocent pieces of paper (and in some genres, whole cities or worlds). Or worse. For example, Ivan was now stuck forever in a book for early-mid teens. Ivan tried to suppress a sneer. He should have been in a medical drama.

Then “Suddenly” and “Unexpectedly” Ivan’s world disappeared. Instead of the walk down the cliff, across the little creek, and up the next cliff to the portal to the Lost City of Ancora Tu, Ivan had appeared on an unpleasant windswept Scottish Beach. In the flashes of lightning, he thought he saw a party down on the beach, so he walked closer. Eventually, he came upon a couple of people drinking on the beach. He walked over to them and a woman jumped to her feet with the help of a giant sword. Ivan caught the whiff of hard liquor, blood, and intoxication.

Ivan looked at the sword and took a step back. He mumbled, “Sorry, I seem to be a bit out of place. No need to stand.” The woman swayed a little, so Ivan the Dentist chanced, “Have you seen any of my friends: Bruce the Bold or Graham, the Furrier? Perhaps a Candle Maker?”

The woman looked at him with a wild far-away look in her eye. Ivan continued, “Dark Riders?” The man lying on the ground groaned. Ivan looked at the man and saw he was lying in a pool of blood. Ivan’s mouth went dry.

The woman kicked the man on the ground and told him to keep quiet. She said to Ivan, “Ahhh.. more Rus! And your friends are dangerous?”

Ivan thought for a moment and said, “The Candle Maker has a large sword.” He looked at the woman’s sword, “Like yours but shiny.”

The woman said, quick as a flash, “An Amazon?” Ivan sensed a change in the atmosphere immediately, and the air crackled with the potential of a cross-market reference. The moment passed, and lightning crashed.

The man lying on the ground coughed up some more blood with little bubbles of air in it, and the woman said, with a conversational slur, “He is dying.”

A chill ran through the dentist’s liver as Ivan suddenly grappled with the idea that someone might die “Unexpectedly” with blood coming out of them. Suppressing the thought, he giggled at her and said, “He will be okay. I will go call an ambulance.” Then he ran as fast as he could along the beach, only stopping to trip over a dead Scot Giant a bit further along the beach.

The beach had disappeared in a flash about a mile further on, by which stage he was puffing and completely ready to lodge a complaint to someone official. Instead, he found himself inside Ancora Tu (page 22), collecting diamonds.

Now he was looking at Rodi and Sarah. After all the dead people, a couple of “Unexpected” young people in his home book was a bridge too far.

Ivan got up abruptly and stamped his feet as he had done 5,921 times before accidently dropping a diamond onto the ground. Dropping a gem was also not in the story and quite contrary to Ivan’s self-image as ultra careful when it came to precious gems. Anger boiled in his chest. The unfairness of it all washed over him.

So it was that, without thinking through the consequences, he looked around to see that no one (other than a nearby butterfly) had seen him drop the gem and he kicked the diamond into a nearby clump of bushes.

The bushes immediately reacted to the gift of the diamond. Unexpectedly, he heard the sound of munching. Ivan frowned and thought of running. As a precaution, Ivan reached down and selected a stout branch that had fallen next to the path. A sturdy branch thick enough to kill something.

There was the sickening sound of pictures and words being rearranged, and then the little butterfly flew towards Ivan.

Ivan, the dentist, was dressed in a rather classy looking checked shirt with suede boots and very soft baggy pants. For a moment he whistled a couple of notes into the air which could have been something from Hot August Night. His tie was fashionably undone with a diamond pin stuck in it. Diamonds twinkled at the edge of every pocket, reflected in eyes, and there was a slight flash of metal from some dental work deep within his mouth. One hand clutched a handful of diamonds and the other a stout branch. Ivan straightened himself up and looked at himself with a smile. His girlfriend back at the bar would be impressed.

The Little Dragon poked her head out of the bush, crunching the diamond Ivan the Dentist had kicked into the bush. She was still ravenous and feeling very unloved. When you feel unloved, you sometimes do things that you wouldn’t normally do, like not share diamonds.

So it was “Unexpectedly” and “Suddenly” that the Little Dragon, who was starting to get pretty big by then, bit the dentist into two equal pieces.

This was in breach of the rules and before Ivan finished his appearances on page 22 and 27.


Moonrider

"How can I stop a woman loving a man?" Betty asked the Candle Maker.

The Candle Maker’s face was in darkness, “Why do you desire this? Why do you, of all people, wish love gone wrong?"

Betty hesitated, "Your sister is trapped in the eyes of a man. She cannot return to her life until she is freed."

The Candle Maker stood and walked to the sitting room window. She opened the drapes and moonlight fell across her face.  She took a breath and murmured, "In his eye. The ancients called a woman trapped in the eye of a man, a moon rider. His eye was akin the moon; her love bound tight by his moon tide.”

Betty asked, “How do we free her?”

The Candle Maker was grim-faced, “Those caught do not want freedom. The spirit is held captive, high above the vaults of the world and thoughts of escape from a failed relationship are confounded by the tides. But, when the tides relax their hold, a simple word spell and a tear can release her. Listen:
Moon rider your fire,
In my eye, your heartbeat:
Tear-fall, free you fly.

They had met the Candle Maker outside Betty's house, stamping her feet against the cold. Betty and Nick had brought her into the warmth to plan their next step. Oriana had grown up in the town, but now lived in a mountain commune and her head now was full of all sorts of strange and sometimes useful information. Betty knew her through Emma and Genny.

The Candle Maker frowned and shook her head, and swore, "Men!"

Nick said, "I just want her back here with us."

The Candle Maker rounded on him, thunder in her eyes, "Where is my sister?"

Betty said, "A thousand years ago, the witch Gunhild gave a woman called Steingerd a love potion. The drink made her love the poet Kormac, swimming in his eye. The natural love between them was always doomed to failure. Kormac was an unlovable adventurer."

Nick said, "That is a bit harsh. He has a couple of good pieces..."

Betty cut Nick off abruptly, "Love gone wrong. That’s the total sum of it and nothing more." Turning to the Candle Maker, Betty said, "This may, or may not, be a little hard to accept." She explained how, as a result of an overactive book, Emma was inside Steingerd's head when she took the witch's potion. Now Emma remained caught up in the book, unable to leave Kormac.

Nick said, "Love gone wrong is a natural part of life. It is responsible for most of our songs and literature."

Betty shot back, "None of the good stuff."

The Candle Maker interrupted, "This does not explain how are we going to get my sister home?"

A couple of hours later, they were deep inside the Monastery of the Congregation of the Feuillants, sitting in Father Luis's office. Father Luis, dressed in a plain black robe, brought them tea and coffee, and muffins, and surprised them all by speaking openly.

Nick said, "I thought you were a silent order. You did not speak when I was here last time."

Father Luis said, "A common misconception. The congregation places high value in listening, or reading, rather than speaking, or writing." He paused and let that sink in, "I choose words carefully."

Betty said, "I have experienced problems in the town library."

Father Luis nodded, “I know. I have problems here.” He asked Betty to tell of the events of the last days in her words. As she spoke, he made annotations in a small notebook.

They sat in silence when she came to the end of her story.

Father Luis put on his reading glasses and picked up the single largish book sitting on his desk. He said, softly, "This is an old pamphlet of 20 pages written at the end of the 15th century.” He nodded to Nick, “Recently re-covered by your brother." He ruffled the pages, and a soft vibration ran through the office. "But recently it started to grow. It now has about a hundred more pages. And instead of just being a book about the mysteries of Solomon, it now contains a description of the end of the world."

Nick let out an exclamation, “My brother, is he here?”.

At the same time, the Candle Maker asked, “End of the World?”

Father Luis shrugged his shoulders at Nick and said to the Candle Maker, "Many of the books in my care tell of the end of the world, and some give dates."

The Candle Maker said, "I knew it! You have been keeping all this information to yourself for years, why..."

Father Luis said quietly, "All the dates have passed. The world is still here."  He coughed with a slightly embarrassed smile, "So far, Christian mystics have a perfect record on getting the date wrong. Since the start of time, time has flown. Here, time is not of the essence. When dealing with the divine, time is simply accidental, illusory."

Betty said, "What does the book you are holding say about the end of the world?"

Father Luis looked at her over his glasses and turned to page 21, "Here. The date and time have changed a couple of occasions during the past few days. But here, right now, it says that the world will be destroyed by a great serpent tomorrow, at 6:00 p.m."

Betty asked, "What else does it say?"

Father Luis turned to the end of the book. He read out "And then the White Guardian asked the Black Guardian when the world would end. And he told her, "The world will end tomorrow, at 6:00 p.m."

Nick said quickly, “How did it know…?”

Father Luis smiled, “There are lots of possibilities.  The book seems to be writing your story as you go along." He did not add, "without all the spelling and grammatical mistakes and unnecessary words and sentences that clog up your mouth." He just kept smiling.

Nick said, "We have to stop this. The world ending."

Father Luis shook his head, "You do not understand, my son. It is too late. There is nothing you can do."

Nick said, "We can’t just sit here and do nothing. Do something! Burn the book!"

The book started to glow.

Father Luis said, "I cannot let you interfere. It may be part of the divine plan. What will happen, must happen."

Betty said, "But, as you have said, no one has picked the right date so far. So perhaps we can ignore this one as well."

Father Luis said, "An unblemished record. So far."

The Candle Maker said, "And in the meantime, we can go rescue my sister."

Betty asked Father Luis directly, "Do you know of any active portals that might take us back."

Father Luis said, "Just the one. The portal to the Lost City of Ancora Tu. But you must not tread that path."

Betty asked, "Why not?"

Father Luis said, "Some of your friends have already taken the path, and sit with the dragon even now."

Betty went white.

Father Luis said, "Go home.”

No one moved.

Father Luis shrugged and said, “Let me put this in context. You are having problems with three troublesome books and the worst thing that has happened so far that a couple of people have got caught up in the book they were reading.” He smiled, failing to mention the dentist, a dragon and the imminent end of the world. “Look around you. Every book in this study is potentially dangerous. If we get through tomorrow, I will need your help.”

Betty looked at the hundreds of books on small shelves, and started to notice the chains and padlocks attached to each. She opened her mouth to protest, but Father Luis put his finger on his lips, “There is nothing you can do. I will stop you if you try."

Betty rose to her feet, "How dare you. This is not some academic exercise about the past. I will do what I wish."

Father Luis nodded, "I thought you would. If I could help you, I would. Remember, though, unlike Oriana here,", he nodded at the Candle Maker, "I do not presume to be a sorcerer. I am just a simple monk, trying to deal with an impossible situation."

The Candle Maker stood next to Betty, "I simply collect the folk wisdom of the days. Your kind does not suffer women healers."

Father Luis, "My faith has recognized and respected women healers since the earliest days. But my faith also compels me to accept the existence of sorcerors and witches. It instructs me not to suffer them. Do not make the mistake of thinking I believe that you are one of that accursed tribe."

Betty said, "Fine."

Father Luis had an uneasy feeling about Betty's use of the word. It sounded very much more like "not fine." He pointedly placed his hand on the book and said to The Candle Maker, "Oriana, I know what you are planning. But your feeble art just preys on the naive and the innocent, undermining faith and attacking the core values of civil society. Listen Oriana. Your sister is in desperate trouble, but the only remedy you can offer is some romantic analogy with the moon and a three line doggerel."

The Candle Maker growled, "And you have a better solution?"

Father Luis slumped a little, "If this is part of the vast battle between good and evil, there is no 'solution.'"

There is silence for a moment, and he continued, "Otherwise... Many mystics have written about their experiences in traveling from their bodies to a world known only to them through books. They all eventually wake, and write their stories. Let your sister return, in the natural course of things, when she is ready. Who knows, she may be back already."

Betty asked, "Is that what your book says?"

Father Luis opened the book and scanned the last few lines, "No word about Emma, as yet."

He kept reading for a moment, "But the dragon has tasted its first blood, Rodi and Sarah have kissed, and the world is still going to end tomorrow at 6 pm." He shook his head, and said, "Perhaps it is all for the best."

They left Father Luis and walked back to Nick's car.

The Candle Maker said, "I do not like that man."

Betty put her finger to her lips, "He can and is reading whatever we say or do. For now, perhaps we just need a good rest. The world will have other options in the morning. Maybe the Scottish beach still has the rune stone on it. Perhaps that is part of the answer."

She left her finger on her lips and caught them both in her eye.

Nick asked, "What about Emma? I am not leaving her on that beach."

Betty said, "Perhaps Father Luis is right. Emma may be sleeping it off on the Library floor. There is no harm swinging past the library to find out. I would like to check that my troublesome books are still out of mischief's reach."

Then she put her finger back on her lips.

At the car, the Candle Maker made them stand in the snow while she tugged the sword out of the car's audio system. When Nick reached for it, she gave him a cold stare, wrapped the towel back around the blade edge and told him to drive the car.

At the Library, Betty motioned them inside. Nick and the Candle Maker searched the library without success until Betty returned a few minutes later, with a book, bound tight with a dog chain. They sat down together at a table, and Betty said, "We have to try. Are you ready?"

The other's nodded. Betty undid the chain and anchored the book to the table. Then she reached into her bag and took out the page she had so carefully folded a little while earlier.

Nick watched her with growing concern as she opened the book. She crinkled her nose, "I do not think it much matters which bits we read, and we will have to improvise a little. I will read the part of Graham, the Furrier. Oriana, you should be the Candle Maker, since you have the sword. Nick, we are one short. You can play the part of Bruce the Brave or Ivan the Dentist. Not much to choose between them, they both one-dimensional characters. Bruce speaks more than Ivan, but Ivan drives the car.  Perhaps it would be best if you drive the car."

But Nick is looking at Betty unfolding the page. He said, "What are you doing with that page?  Is that the page I die on?"

Betty said, "Kormac died, not you. Read Ivan’s lines, please."

Then before anyone could ask any questions, she put the single page into the back of the book she was holding, and addressed the air around her, "Father Luis when you read this, it will be too late. If you will not help, stay out of my business!"

The book formerly known as The Lost City of Ancora Tu started to glow white hot.

Betty started to read the book aloud, the sky outside burst into fire, earth and water, and the world began to spin.

Part 4: Ancora Tu

The Lost City

Graham, the Furrier looked across the abyss. There, in the distance were the gates to the lost city of Ancora Tu. Even from this distance, he could see the massive wooden doors set in a perfect stone mantle. Once again, the old Candle Maker's directions proved correct.

He backed away from the edge and turned to wave the rest of his party forward. But they were nowhere to be seen. In their place, there was an old man. Unexpectedly, it was the old Candle Maker, his wizened face carrying a long thin beard trailing almost to the ground.

Graham asked the old man if he had seen the rest of the party: Bruce the Bold and Ivan the Dentist. He said that the others would not be needed and that he had sent them back to the inn.

Graham felt a chill in the air. Plus some disappointment because they had all seemed keen on getting some of the Ancora Tu gold (especially Ivan). Importantly, they all said that they would help carry the gold.

The Candle Maker said tersely, "We only need two." He looked at Graham, "Fewer people to divide."

Graham asked if the Candle Maker was going to be able to carry some gold as well and he shook his head. Graham asked, "So, what are you going to do?"

He took a step back and calmly tore the mask away from his face and stepped out of the shapeless tunic. Where once an old man had stood, there was a woman. She said, resting her hand on a sharp sword hanging by her side, "I will protect you."

Graham took a deep breath, wondering what he needed protection from. Graham told himself: Stay calm. Everything is going to work out all right.


The way home

On the way back, Ivan drove. The others were unusually quiet, trying to ignore the Candle Maker, the empty sack she had on her lap and her sword (which was relatively large compared to the car and which was cutting small holes in everything it touched.)

Finally, Bruce chanced the question which all of them desperately wanted to ask. He opened his mouth, and the Candle Maker snarled, so he shut it. The snarl had ugly undertones.

She looked meaningfully at Bruce and swore, “Someone left the gate to Ancora Tu open and one of the dragons got out.”

Bruce shook his head vigorously and tried to point at Graham, the Furrier. Graham was not a furrier, and didn't even know any furriers, but had picked up that name on account of his hair (and the friends he hung out with).

Bruce stuttered, "I went back to the pub and drank beer. Like you told me, miss."

The Candle Maker glared at him a bit longer, and he added, "Stang and the local bikies can vouch for me."

Surprising, this didn't seem to improve his position, which deteriorated a moment later when a couple of bikies pulled in behind their car. Bruce kept pointing at Graham, "Ask Graham! He didn't come to the pub."

Graham shrunk from the Candle Maker as she swung towards him. Still, it was a pretty small car, not much bigger than a motorbike, and the shrinking was more symbolic than practical.

Graham had had a chance to work out a story, but when the time came to blurt it out, the story went to pot, "I got lost. I followed you up the old steps for a bit, but ran out of breath and stopped in a big clearing. I waited for you to come back."

Graham shook his head and, after reaching up to adjust his hair so he could look out, reached down into his jacket. He said, "You think I stole the gold. I can prove I did not. I have no gold! All I got was this."

They all turned to watch, including Ivan, who should have been driving the car.

He pulled out a large greeny-blue egg.

The Candle Maker gasped. A crack appeared on the surface of the egg, just as the car started to run off the road.

Ivan slammed on the brakes, but the car slid off the road. The sword slid forward suddenly and buried itself deeply in the CD player on the dashboard of the car. The car screamed in agony, did an Olympic half turn and stopped hard against a very big tree.

There were beads of face sweat on Ivan, the Dentist. He was still not looking at the road.

Everyone in the car sat still for a moment. Graham’s hair fell back over his eyes. We all listened to the car’s audio system desperately trying to eject the sword.

Without apologizing for driving the car off the road, which would have been the polite and right thing to do in the circumstances, instead, Ivan pulled the keys out of the ignition. He jumped out of the car and disappeared into the ferns by the side of the road.

With a howl of anger, the candle maker shoved the others out of her way. She placed both her legs on the dashboard. With an angry face and muttering nasty things about dentists, she gripped the pommel of the sword. She strained to pull the sword from the dashboard.

The Candle Maker’s arm muscles bunched and glowed with sweat. Helpfully, Bruce the Bold took the opportunity to suggest that Ivan may have left the gate to Ancora Tu open. The Candle Maker was groaning with the effort but took a moment to shoot him a glance which threatening to eat him.

Just then, Graham the Furrier gave a muffled shout. We all turned to look at him, or rather his hair. Even the Candle Maker stopped in mid-pull. Graham was holding the egg in front of where his eyes would normally have been with both hands. As we watched, the egg shuddered, and little cracks appeared all over the surface, a bit like when a stone hits your window screen. Suddenly, a bit fell off.

With a puff of smoke, a small beak poked out of the egg.

At the same time, the car gave one last convulsion and Bruce muttered one last incautious accusation, “Your sword killed Ivan’s car!”

The Dark Guardian

The Bikies had pulled up a little back. With a display of coordination usually reserved for extremely dangerous situations, they surrounded the car from the safety of a rocky outcrop 100 paces away.

Stang arrived a little after the others, silently approving their caution. She dismounted from her black motorbike and momentarily put thoughts of the beach to one side. Her black steel-trimmed boots did not raise any dust. Sun rays hitting her found themselves unable to leave the surface of her black leathers. Stang did not leave a shadow. She stood, weighing the risks against the metal in her hands.

Inside the car, came the sounds of a heated debate.

The Candle Maker had stopped trying to pull the sword out of the dead car's audio system and was demanding that Graham give her the egg.

But Graham had decided to keep it for himself. He listened to a lot of animated movies and had formed a view of what was in the egg.

The Candle Maker said slowly, "You might not see it now, but you are taking a terrible risk. Holding that egg exposes us all to a lot of unnecessary danger."

Graham said, "It's just an egg.' The egg shivered, and he became excited, "My egg. I found it! This is the first sweet thing I have ever found." He shook his head, showering everyone with bits of stuff. Briefly, they saw his eyes, small and fiery, then his hair slid back over his face.

The Candle Maker took a different tack, asking conversationally, "What if it is a brown snake?"

Graham shook his hair harder.

The Candle Maker rapped it up a notch, "It could be one of those nasty suckers that jump out at you and go down your throat. Haven't you seen 'Alien'?"

Bruce murmured, "Looks like an emu egg to me."

In a moment of doubt, Graham insisted loudly, "No! It is a dragon egg. I heard the dragon."

One of the listening bikies gave a muffled gasp, and Stang hesitated for a second, growling out a curse at the Candle Maker. Then Stang strode forward. Her Black half-cape fluttered behind her, as she sped to a trot, to meet the threats within the car.

Stang reached the car and reached for the door handle. Quick as a flash, the Candle Maker reached over Graham and locked the car door. Then she gripped the sword with renewed vigor and gave another heave. Stang shook her head, braced herself and ripped the back door off its hinges.

Stang probably had another life and a different name once. But no-one could remember from where she had come. As for her real name, everyone forgot it on account of a disagreement she had had with the former head of the outlaw motorbike pack. After the disagreement, she had cleaned up the rest of them. Those who could not run away were made to wash and clean the clubhouse till it sparkled like bikes. Then she went and bought them all a better class of brewed beer and a scrabble board, and they spent the next couple of day making up stories about the events that everyone could live with. None of them dared tell her about her new name.

For the second time that day, Graham shook the hair out of his eyes and tried to scramble over the Candle Maker and her sword to the other side of the car.

The Candle Maker looked at Stang with a far-away look in her eyes and twitched her nose. With a puff, she turned into a mouse and raced out of the car. Graham stopped scrambling, looked over his shoulder at the little mouse and a dreamy look came into his eyes. He said, “Can I keep…”

Stang lifted her boot (black leather with the metal painted in matching black metallic paint with little black stars) and brought it down hard where the little mouse had been running. Dust rose from the ground around her boot.

Graham looked at Stang in disbelief.

He asked in a little voice, holding the egg close to his heart, “You don’t like mice?”

A butterfly arose from under Stang’s boot and fluttered into the air. Seconds later a little dragon flew into the air, scattering bits of shell everywhere. 

Stang dragged the others from the car, and took the sword into her hands. With one heave, she freed it, and wrapping it in a bit of toweling that she found, bound it.

Stang turned to them and growled, “I told you not to try.”


Graham the Furrier gave another muffled shout, “My Dragon is getting away!” He ran to the cliff face, following in the footsteps of Ivan the Dentist, the butterfly and the Little Dragon.


End of the World

Bridge One


Father Luis drew in one last breath of smoke and then blew the smoke into the night air, watching it dance around snowflakes.

In the freeze descending, the brook had become quiet and the only night sounds now were a distant freight train shunting trucks above the town. He wondered whether he should have taken Betty deeper into his confidence.

Slowly he walked back to his office. He sat, and reopened the old book. His face creased as he read, "The White Guardian returned to her library to undertake a search for Emma and to check her charges." He waited as words formed and unformed in the blank spaces below. Suddenly the book warmed. He looked at it in surprise and dropped it onto his desk. Avoiding the sudden heat on the cover of the book, he flipped to the front page, and the prophecy of world's end. The date was now indistinct, numbers forming and disappearing. As he stared at it, a new time appeared. Rapidly, he flicked back to the end of the book, and watched as new words took form, "The White Guardian called her forces to her, and they entered the world of Ancora Tu. As the White Guardian left the world, she cried these words, 'Black Guardian it is too late to dissuade me from my path. If you do not help, stay out of my business!'".

Father Luis frowned, closed the book with force, and bound it tight with chains. In the silence, he tried to put all the pieces together. His world was usually a world of blacks and whites; there was no room for grays. But Father Luis had been trained to believe in the impossible, to imagine to unimaginable, to be prepared for the situations outside the realms of scientific reality. On this occasion, he would have to accept gray for a short period.

He reached under his desk and pressed a Red Button marked "Official Use Only." As he left his library, a dark shape detached itself from the ceiling above his office and followed him into the darkness.

He met the other monks in their vehicle lot. Only five monks remained, most elderly and one supporting his bent frame with a cane. Father Luis shouted instructions to them and their eyes lit. Then they roared into the night.


Bridge Two


Rodi was sitting next to Sarah, close and uncertain of what to do. The small holes on Sarah's nose had stopped bleeding a while back, but she was still upset. Rodi said, "These are clean and are ideally placed. I do not think that your dragon simply bit you. These are not random."

Sarah sniffed, "She is just a baby, I don't blame her. But it hurts so much." Sarah leaned closer to Rodi, "I feel cold."

Rodi frowned and put down the cloth they were using to stop the bleeding, and held her close. As Rodi's arms reached around her, she sighed. But then Rodi froze, and then pushed her away with some force. Rodi's hands were covered in blood. Sarah screamed.


Bridge Three


The Butterfly and the Little Dragon were looking at the body of Ivan the Dentist. His body, split in two, was now completely relieved of diamonds. Ivan's two bodies were not moving, but there was no blood to be seen.

The Butterfly flew down onto Ivan's face. Ivan opened an eye in terror.

Ivan coughed, "What have you done? You can't just bite dentists in half."

The Little Dragon frowned. She wondered if she should burn the evidence and took a deep breath, a slight tendril of smoke escaping her mouth.

The Butterfly said to the Little Dragon, "Somewhere in here in this mess of a dentist, is my sister's friend and, in his eye, maybe my sister."

The Little Dragon looked at the Butterfly and almost hiccuped.

The Butterfly climbed across Ivan's face to his open eye and looked into it carefully. She prodded the eye and a tear formed. The butterfly sipped the tear.

The Butterfly said, "Now! Burn us hot!"

The Little Dragon poured a blast of white fire onto the dentist.


Bridge Four


The portal to the lost city of Ancora Tu sits high atop a cliff face; inaccessible save by a dizzying climb along a goat track winding up a cliff face. The portal is in a frame of white granite, unbroken by the ages. Inside the frame, the entrance is protected by a gate made of ancient wood, taken from a forest nearby at an earlier age, when the portal sat next to a long gone river.

The Guardians of the World are standing at the locked gates.

The Black Guardian takes a step back and calmly tore the mask away from her face and stepped out of the black uniform. Where once Stang once stood, Father Luis now stands. Betty rips off the mask of Graham, the Furrier, and steps out, glaring at Father Luis while spitting bits of beard and hair out of her mouth. She shouted, "I told you not to interfere! Now, how are we going to get past this gate?"

Father Luis looked at her and said, "Perhaps there is no portal here. Maybe this is just a rocky outcrop."

Betty glared at him, "You do not believe that. I need to get in there, now!"

Father Luis said, "If these are gates, they are now closed against entrance and exit. The great serpent that was to destroy the world is now trapped within. We should not open the gates."

Betty demanded, "How many real people are trapped in here? What do you know of this place?"

Father Luis said, "You can do nothing here. Let us go back. In the morning, the world may be a little easier to understand."

Betty said, menace creeping into her voice, "I am responsible for these people."

Father Luis said, "I am sorry, it is my nature not to reveal things save when the time is meet. I struggle to be otherwise, but it is not possible."

Betty raises her fist to the world and cries out in frustration.

Bridge Five


When a traveler first enters the Lost City of Ancora Tu, she often remarks on the complexity of the design of the city and its buildings. Nothing is intuitive. To turn right, you must first turn left. In the city itself, you must put aside your conception of 'city,' and 'town' and 'village,' and forget other cities you have experienced.

Your typical city is a bit like a book. Despite their differences in content and appearance, cities are all constructed with similar materials. While books are built with hard covers, end sheets, paste, paper, and ink, the essence of cities is in concrete and metals, glass and fiber. Ordinary cities, like books, vary one from the other by size color social cohesion ethnic, political and cultural differences. Even the ink can be different. But if the Lost City of Ancora Tu were a book, you would find none of those material characteristics of ordinary cities or books. Instead, those who have built the Lost City of Ancora Tu have used energy: electrons vibrating with transient frequencies.

After a week, the traveler begins to see a pattern within the complexity of the City. The nine bridges of the City separate the four outer quadrants from the central area and the single exit. Diamonds and gold litter the streets but have no natural value. Amidst the crystal spires of light, residents illuminate the great city towers all hours of the day and night. All things, good and evil, appear possible. But the risks deter few. All the peoples of the world have been pouring into the Lost City of Ancora Tu for years through cracks in the interspaces of new technology, and as they enter the city limits, they gladly swap all their material possessions for transient value.

After two weeks, the traveler starts to see poverty among the riches. The art of the City is derivative with a sameness that does not inspire. In the slave markets, you can pick up a man here or a woman there. The City excludes no drug nor body modification, the young roam City parks at night in monstrous carapaces, clicking claws and flashing fangs, only to reshape themselves by mid-morning. No excess is too extreme or narrow. Everything is permitted; no community banned. No belief is not enthusiastically catered for and promoted. On the thoroughfares and in the areas, violence and peace is random and commonplace. Despite the violence, no police patrol the streets; no librarians guard knowledge, no teachers instill the will to learn. Those favored by the moment take justice by force and guile.

After a month, the traveler starts to notice that owners often abandon stately homes before they are complete. The City rebuilds ghettos as areas of incredible wealth within days. Sellers of second-hand oil lamps become millionaires even as you watch them trying to trade their wares. Children starve and waste before your eyes.

It is only then that the traveler begins to understand three important realities about the Lost City of Ancora Tu. Firstly, the city is living on borrowed time. Like all modern human technology it risks destruction by a random flux in a solar flare, perhaps tomorrow or maybe in 50 years time. On the day before destruction, when all might be saved, the City occupants will argue about who should act, and end up taking no action. On the day the city fractures and burns, its occupants will not remember how to repair the city. At first, they will sit in the ruins until they come to understand that there is no one left to save them. Then, those still able will walk away with nothing.

Secondly, despite being full of people, the city is empty of souls, life and meaning.

Finally, while the city consumes the wealth of the world, it offers nothing in return. Just the illusion of a city. 

Bridge Six


Emma swam in the waters of his cold eye. Fantastic images of Steingerd's life tumbled around her. The sea and the sky. The blue cold of winter and the golden butter of summer crops. An inferred pattern of life, never close enough to touch, never substantial enough to influence, a life never close enough to live.

She watched a brightly colored butterfly dance in the sky. Emma remembered her sister shaping candles, laughing and telling nonsense rhymes about the future. The butterfly came closer, and her heart beat faster.

Back in the past, her sister had found her raging about a boyfriend seen kissing another. Her sister climbed into bed with her and they cuddled together against the cold, talking about the tyranny of men. She heard her sister whispering urgently to her in the dark, "He has released you. Fall away! Do not run. Do not stand and fight. Do not accuse nor torment. Just fall away."

Emma had protested, "I want him to feel my hurt."

Oriana was grim, "There will be time for that if you wish. But not now. First, free yourself from his love spells, from the words you both tied yourselves up in. Become yourself again. Be free."

The dream faded and the butterfly near her whispered:
"Moon rider your fire,
In my eye, your heartbeat:
Tear-fall, free you fly.”

Beyond the butterfly, the sky suddenly exploded in white light. Emma’s heart warmed, remembering the trust betrayed, the love taken for granted, the dishonor of a kiss stolen without love. Her heart burnt with a savage fire. It burnt the eye in which she swam. The eye blinked. A tear formed. And then Emma began to fall.

Where Ivan the Dentist had once been, the white flames of the Little Dragon consumed every spec of matter, turning all into smoke and dust.  

Bridge Seven


Then it was over. The Little Dragon coughed, looked at the scorched earth and watched the gentle rain of dust and clearing smoke. Despite her sore throat, she was pleased. She breathed in the dust, remembering the stories of those she destroyed. She said, "The mind of each living thing consists of two parts. One part is within their heads. The other part is in the relationships they have with other people, the bits of their lives stored on computers, diaries, fridges, recipe books, gardens, dances, crochet and mobile phones. For so long as those stories exist, so too does a part of each of those people."

Bridge Eight


Trevor found the three travelers asleep on the floor of the library later that day. After finding clothes and warming the travelers, he called Betty.

At first they seemed relieved to be back, each describing their encounter with the Little Dragon in a different way.

Oriana, the Candle Maker had momentarily lost her sense of color, but told Betty of how the Little Dragon acted with blinding compassion and speed.

Nick, with the benefit of hindsight, told Betty how reading Ivan's part was perhaps the worst thing he had even lived through. He had a dim view of the Little Dragon, colored perhaps by being chomped in two and then incinerated. He smelt of singed cloth. He also had some trouble with walking, reporting that the lower part of his body seemed to have a mind of its own, which Betty took note of and quietly put at the bottom of her list of priorities. He told Betty he intensely loved Emma, and knew that she loved him. While Betty debriefed Emma, Nick wandered off to borrow a basic book on writing poetry and spent a bit of time looking for swords in odd places.

Emma was her old self, with two small exceptions. Firstly, she told Betty how Sarah had stolen the Little Dragon from her. Betty had similar sentiments, and they narrowly avoided a face to face argument about who was entitled to the dragon. Secondly, no matter how Betty and Oriana tried, Emma could not see nor hear nor smell Nick. Oriana said, "It will probably wear off in time." Betty was not convinced, and persuaded Oriana to take Emma back to the mountain commune for a couple of weeks to “let things settle down”.

Later that day, Betty met with Father Luis over a cup of tea and muffins to try to repair some bridges. Father Luis did not apologize for not taking Betty into his confidence. And Betty did not tell him what she did with the last page of Kormac's Saga.

Betty did ask one question, "Why is the Little Dragon so dangerous. How could it destroy the world? Fire? Venom?"

Father Luis, who had used many more words in the space of a day tried to be concise, "Some Dragons accumulate. This new one wants to accumulate all the knowledge of the world, good and evil. It burns the books and inhales the words. Perhaps she is acting out of the best of intentions, but she is mortal. She is vulnerable. And when she dies, all the knowledge of the world will die with her."

Betty thought about the books in her care, and she said, "Not on my watch."

Father Luis answered with a smile, "We are safe, so long as the gates to Ancora Tu remain locked."

Bridge Nine


Rodi, bound the wounds on Sarah's back and lay with her keeping her warm. In the morning, Rodi found the Little Dragon wrapped around Sarah as well.

Rodi asked the Little Dragon, "What have you done to Sarah?"

The Little Dragon looked at Rodi and wondered if she should eat him now or later.

Rodi knew that look and reminded the Little Dragon that Rodi knew where diamonds and teaspoons might be found.

The Little Dragon said, "Sarah belongs to me. She is growing wings. She will open her eyes in a little while."

Rodi said, "No Sarah belongs to no one. She is your friend and she is my friend. Can I have wings too?"

Sarah eventually opened her eyes. While they waited for Sarah to open her eyes, Rodi spent the day teaching the Little Dragon about friendship. They even found time to melt gold into nose ornaments.

As the Little Dragon had promised, when they were strong enough, she taught Sarah and Rodi how to fly.

Then the Little Dragon opened a portal into the outside world.

The Little Dragon asked, "Where shall we go first?"

Rodi said, "Somewhere with all the knowledge of the world."

Sarah said, "Somewhere near the sea."

The Little Dragon said, “Cool!”


Afterword


This is a note of thanks for all those people who have been reading this novel, or who have put it aside to read it at a later stage when their children grow up and they have time to pour themselves a cup of tea and read a book. Well, it probably be too late then. Still, the final parts of the story will be available in e-book form and it might become an audio book.

This novel started off as a short story. It was a silly story about how a couple of books grow by eating other books. As they grow, the stories within changed and the world changed with them. Ordinary people can fall into these books, and some do not come back.

A couple of months ago the story started to eat comments and suggestions from a couple of you and it started to grow. Unfortunately, as is a risk in these days of e-libraries, it ate a couple of other short stories along the way.

It has turned into a story about books eating other books AND, far more subtly, a story about the last days of 'real' libraries and librarians. Throughout, the writer intended to invite the reader to consider a couple of burning current questions. Firstly, how long will the old libraries last? Secondly, when the last librarian leaves, who will protect us from the books? These are exciting and dangerous days. Fortunately, the publisher has cut most of that nonsense out this final draft.

The novel plays with three different libraries.

The first is the “new library”, the library of our children and the uncertain future. It is the incredibly rich and diverse library "in the cloud." While it offers everything, it also provides nothing. Each new day, the cloud loses more unique information than it accumulates as data expires or corrupts. Each new day, the mass of garbage (such as Facebook) increasingly obscures that which is beautiful, interesting or relevant. To add insult to injury, the whole edifice, good and bad, is going to be destroyed on 1 May 2024 in a fraction of a second by a solar flare. And if it isn’t destroyed on that date (because you all prayed to whatever deity you could find), the destruction date has only been deferred, not cancelled. So keep praying.

The second is the public library of our childhood, carefully curated by a dedicated bunch of librarians. In the novel, the town library is headed up by Chief Librarian Betty, intent on maintaining balance and spreading knowledge and entertainment. She balances extremes, and in that balance brings financial and spiritual wealth to the people of her town. That is, she is an integral part of the bourgeois middle class intent on oppressing those intended by the natural law to rule the masses.

The third is the technical library, guarded by a different sort of librarian, one conscious of the dangers and pitfalls that lurk within. In the novel, this is represented by a monk, Father Luis, but it could have been swapped for the technical libraries of the great multinational corporations, or nuclear scientists within government or a thousand other institutions.

The novel starts with the assumption that the bourgeois middle class notion of humanist libertarian culture has nurtured innovation within the West (using Betty and her notion of balance). (At this point, the book you are holding is looking anxiously for any sign of a publisher or librarian, expecting any moment that a proof reader will come along and remove the words “the bourgeois middle class”).

In a world without librarians, who will be there to save us from those dangerous tomes... or perhaps not so much save us but balance competing ideas. Imagine a librarian: “Ok you read that book, and now you have all sorts of wild ideas. Now read this one, it will give some balance.” The power of the great public librarian is the subtle one of adjusting balances.

This first novel considers the threat faced by Betty as she defends the bourgeois middle class values. Betty populates her library through bequest and purchase. The town prospers because she enhances the flow of a diverse range of information. She restricts access to very few books. A singular exception mentioned is a bequest of spring mattress patents which she, for personal reasons, keeps locked securely locked up (a very indirect throw at the all-pervasive pornography that floods Western work.)

The threat is, on its face, fanciful: an old story consumes members of a reading group, teaching complex stories about love and life, and some of the readers start living in the book.

The writer, naively, originally intended that the end part of the novel would briefly explore a different approach to libraries. For this purpose, he read the Wikipedia entry on one of the 'defunct' monastic orders, the Congregation of the Feuillants, and tried to imagine them still alive and kicking. The writer wrote a note to the publisher saying that the book would be delayed because he now had to explore information management from an entirely different perspective: where the books within the monastery may be highly dangerous and could he get an advance on payment. The publisher did not come down with the last drop of rain, and told the writer to get on with it.

The writer protested, discovering a little too late that the Wikipedia entry was fairly thin, and that he might need to pad the story with some original source material. He protested one last time that while he was setting the second part in a monastery, it could have as easily been set in the technical library concerned with chemical, biological or nuclear warfare. With hope and bluff, he argued that this model is far too attractive to dismiss in a chapter or two, so will become a second novel that takes Betty and the others into their futures. He even convinced the publisher that the second story had become a substantial story in its right (almost certainly ready for publishing in early in 2017). Now he is panicking because that was a bald-faced lie.

In truth, the writer had stumbled across the Congregation of the Feuillants (a monastic order of monks and nuns from the 15th century) accidently while researching a possible abyss* in his tooth (note to proofreader, "really?"). They were a very conservative order and like other congregations became caught up in the counter-reformation in Europe. Like some of the other monastic orders, they were a silent order. They used silence to explore mysticism. After the French Revolution, the order disbanded and drifted back into mainstream monasteries. The publisher put the writer in a steel cage for a couple of days and forced him to read a selection of the early mystic writings arising from this congregation, particularly those that appeared during the so-called 'mystic invasion.' To the writer’s surprise, he came across claims that some readers were transported back inside of written stories, returning with instructions for contemporary living. Fearing the possibility that someone might accuse him of some sort of theft of intellectual property or, more likely, making the whole thing up, he ripped the pages out of the old manuscripts and ate them himself, which may or may not have been a sensible thing.

In the imagined monastery of the Congregation of the Feuillants, Father Luis has an entirely different starting point to Betty. Unlike Betty, Father Luis has no choice but to accept all the writings of the church. He knows what the answer to "everything" is, and is bound by doctrine and precedent to accept all. In his library, the most dangerous tracts on the planet exist, with no attempt to balance. Unlike Betty, his focus is on 'danger,' and he acts to restrict access, rather than to balance extremes.

The writer’s original outline was not very sympathetic to this approach (which was modeled loosely on his own difficult time researching papers held by a monastic library many years ago). The publisher and a couple of ghost writers eventually spiked his drink and changed the relevant text based on a more measured consideration of Capuchin and Jesuit thinking, as well as considering the fascinating history of the Feuillants and the extraordinary 'Mystical Invasion.'

Indeed, it is the very challenge from within, the reflections of the mystics rather than that of science, that seem to consume much of the energy of monastic and other technical libraries. Inside these libraries, much time is spent debating mystic pronouncements about the day the world will end (or the comet that will wipe out the library in the cloud), than any real attempt to meet and integrate or reconcile the challenge of known 'outside' or other branches of 'scientific thought.' But then, perhaps this is a common risk in all technical libraries.

As noted above, the writer had the pleasure of reading some published reflections of mystics. He found some of the mystics to be intelligent, practical people who have experienced the unusual and tried to make sense of extraordinary experiences. Some were more like him, and barely articulate. Others were very like him with a poor understanding of both their religion, life experience, and everyday phenomena. Many of the tracts are impossible to classify in any particular way. Perhaps, like the writer himself, a few of the authors were mad, or bad, or sad. However, all tell a story and while some can be judged by their story, others cannot.

The writer became a bit obsessed with a surprisingly modern example of a nun disappearing into a book. This is, of course, the young Spanish woman, Sister Josefa, who had an interesting association with the Congregation of the Feuillants. In this passage, she departs from her usual visits to Hell (which featured in a lot of her writings).
"Tonight, I did not go down into Hell, but was transported to a place where all was obscure, but in the center was a red smoldering fire. They had laid me flat and so bound me that I could not make the slightest movement. Around me were seven or eight people; their black bodies were unclothed, and I could see them only by the reflections of the fire. They were seated and were talking together.
"One said: 'We'll have to be very careful not to be found out, for we might easily be discovered.'
"The devil answered: 'Insinuate yourselves by inducing carelessness in them... but keep in the background, so that you are not found out... by degrees they will become callous, and you will be able to incline them to evil. Tempt these others to ambition, to self-interest, to acquiring wealth without working, whether it be lawful or not. Excite some to sensuality and love of pleasure. Let vice blind them...' (Here they used obscene words).

Josefa made it clear that she was not describing a dream but a reality she physically experienced through meditation and silence. The writer (of course) had no idea that people like Sister Josefa existed/exist or that the church accords them and their experiences lots of credence. None of us are laughing at Sister Josefa or the Church here; they believed passionately in what they saw/heard.  It must, however, pose significant difficulties for those charged with dealing with the reports and the librarians into whose hands these accounts finally come to rest.

One small passage that did bring a smile was this word to Sister Josefa from the devil:
"Among other things he said: 'Is it possible that such weaklings have more power than I, who am mighty... I must conceal my presence, work in the dark; any corner will do from which to tempt them... close to an ear... in the leaves of a book... under a bed..."
The writer was a little surprised at the notion of a candid Devil confessing weakness, and who can only do His terrible work by ambushing the unwary "in the leaves of a book." He told the publisher that he had gone back to checking under the bed as well and being very careful about which books he eats.

In Betty’s library mystic books sit in the fiction section as nonsense. As in the civil law, Betty has long ago dispensed with so-called 'spectral evidence,' assertions from someone that voice is speaking to them alone. Betty accepts that some of these books are worth their weight in entertainment. In the novel, the writer notes Betty's belief in ghosts and gave the past librarians a passing physical form. But then; who has not had a step up from a well thought through a note from a long past hand. In reality, today in civil society, someone who hears voices is treated very seriously. Unlike murderers and rapists, they are not given bail but are caught quickly and filled with psychotropic drugs, rendered harmless and then sat next to open windows overlooking trees dying of acid rain in smog-filled cities. The modern version of a witch burning.

By contrast, in Father Luis's library mystic books sit in the non-fiction section as fact. Despite this, there is a healthy skepticism about mystic claims within the Church. Within the churches one often hears the refrain, "after careful consideration of the messages; we might conclude that they were acting in the best of intentions, but that the inner voice they heard carried no supernatural nature to it. Rather the voices were her subconscious repeating what she thought her God should be telling her." 'Often' but not ‘always’. Sometimes, if the inner voice is 'on message,' a mystic account is sanctioned as being consistent with doctrine, and if not openly embraced, tolerated. Still, once released these tracts are feverishly copied and spread by hand or word of mouth among the faithful, the curious, the incautious and the desperate.

Finally, as in many other organizations (government, community or private), we cannot ignore well-documented evidence of a culture of systemic sexual and physical abuse in the monastic orders (as, tragically, in many other places). The production and distribution of some erotic mysticism may be part (but not all) of that culture.

As the walls of the great public and technical libraries start to fall, an empire's ransom of all of the great delights of art and craft are being carried off to be installed in the dangerously fragile library in the cloud. But within this vast collection of books are also bad books. Books of such glamor that they trap readers. Books that peddle arguments that will do harm too many reading them. Books full of hate that lead to the proliferation of fear, war and misery. Books that morph into new shapes as they consume all around them.


We may laugh at or quarrel with Chief Librarian Betty or Father Luis, but are we ready for the world without them?



Acknowledgements


Andie L (and a couple of other) asked for the whole book and so here it is. Elizabeth Kearvell raised the possibility of an audio book.  I am grateful for CR Bravo creating a reading of the first chapter and can say with some confidence that both a full audio version and print versions will be available in the New Year.

Writing can be a lonely pursuit. Typically I write each night from 6pm to about 11pm before posting on G+. Watching a book take shape can be a raw experience; you get to see all the typos, grammatical mistakes, and continuation problems. Your quiet and noisy company through this process made it enjoyable. Chris Sutton made an interesting suggestion through this process, which has me thinking about moving a little away from serializing a whole story to serializing stand-alone short stories (which might later be knitted into a complete story). I have appreciated Chris Sutton’s support and encouragement through the year, and agree with his enthusiasm for  anthropomorphizing books.

Monique Helfrich ‘s comments took the novel in lots of different directions. I enjoyed my excursions into the beauty of the Little Prince. You reminded me that some books cannot be tamed, and that libraries are great places to meet other people. At an important junction you helped untangle the story, “The delicate point was: who decided they are toxic and why. To day, everyone having access to internet can find texts and read them without control ...”

Ann Pollak reminded me early that you need to watch your step around Candle Makers. “Best to surround yourself with lawyers, thieves, and placer miners.” Anne provided a couple of sharp humorous comments that turned the original short story I was writing about finding a dragon egg into something quite different. Anne reminded me that “chaos is not itself evil. It’s just chaos. What we do with it determines whether the outcome is good or evil.” Like many of you, her recollection about libraries from the past led me to a greater appreciation of the great and small public libraries, and reset my stance on Father Luis’s monastic library. Klara Moody reminded me that all of us have our own experience of libraries, and that some are technical or specialized libraries.

I know and appreciate Shonie Hutter ‘s quiet company. The depth of your understanding of the world pushes me to try to get things right.


Zeljka Rakocy’s enthusiasm from start to finish was greatly appreciated. You helped me focus on words and phrases, and helped shape the story.

This time, the novel was translated many times during preparation. I wish to thank Zsuzsanna Rozsnyai Jagerné’s support. You helped me focus on the difficult issues involved in creating text that can reach a wide audience. Zelda Le Roux helped me unpack the problem of multiple languages reminding me that in South Africa she has several languages other than Afrikaans and English including Tswana, Xhosa, Zulu, Venda, Sotho, Pedi, Seswathi. She gave the beautiful example of Afrikaans “my wiel is pap” which directly translated my wheel is porridge (but actually means, ‘my tyre is flat’). Zelda also reminded me of the distinction between physical book and story; in real life it is the story that captivates - as well as a cautionary word on the limited understanding of the little dragon, which gave me an opportunity for mischief late in the book.

I always enjoy seeing Renee Leach ‘s comments, you give me a great deal of quiet support when I write. Thanks!

The Chenai folk-story writer Madhura Ravishankar constantly reminds me of the importance of remembering the past and sparked my interested in the theatrical nature of a book reading.

My friend Anna Jethwa (and some of you who watch from a little distance) quietly insist on a happy ending. I am not sure I have really got there in the first part of this story. If the story is analysed in terms of the four social ‘pairs’ Betty/Father Luis, Sarah/Rodi, Nick/Emma and Genny/Bruce.m each relationship remains fraught in its own way.

Many of you keep producing wonderful, inspiring images that help shape the direction of my stories. In this regard I would like to particularly mention Madelene Jeffery, Tomáš Franče, and Daniel “Chris” Martin.

At different stages a number of you reached out and gave me a word of encouragement – My thanks to Calma Mavidouce, Abhishek Shukla, Adnan Shahzad, Aman Kumar, Anna Panas, Arslan Akhtar, Asid Ali, Bahiti Eva, Bill Meagher, Carrie Campbell (Carebear), Charleen Stokes, Dyke Choxs, Edneuza Nascimento Silva, Fawaz mm, Flo Franc, Graciela Quiroga, Hajiro 27121989, Hamid Liwany, Henrique Rodrigues, HKnight TV, Huệ Tây, Johnny Smith, my old friend Karen Schumacher, Maria Piotrowicz, Muhammad Zubair, Mukul Nandi, Noor Nawaz, Nur Hidayah I, Obed Bill, Osman Goni Bradar, Patsy Bagwell, Prabumahesh Prabu, Renata Maria, RL appzhib, Said Port, Sakshi Basrur, Siddharth Khurana Khurana, Virender Sharma, and Wendy Garcia. Thanks!

I know that lot of other of you followed the story as it took shape, and I felt and appreciated your quiet company through the process.

Finally, I would thank Michael A Koontz who looked to the future so positively: “rock on man, we need more adventures with that little dragon :)”




Post a Comment