The Perilous Realm Online

 

Book One: The Endless Road

Chapter Five

 

 He was walking through a field. Snow was falling.

 

He walked, and gazed around him, and saw that there were stones lying everywhere.  Small grey stones. The snow fell on them but it did not cover them. He stopped and picked up one of the stones. It was heavy, its surface cold and smooth. He turned it over in his hand.

 

The stone opened an eye and looked at him.

 

The hairs rose on the back of his neck. He turned. Through the veils of falling snow a dim figure was coming toward him. His first thought was that the hollows had found him again. Then he saw how the figure moved, with slow, careful steps, and he knew that this was no ghost.

 

As the figure came closer Will saw that it was a tall man dressed in a dark crimson robe. His long hair was as white as the snow, though he appeared to be young. As he walked his eyes searched the snow-covered ground, as if he was looking for … footprints.

 

The man had not seen him yet, but in another moment he would cross the tracks Will had made in the snow. Will’s first impulse was to flee, but he didn’t move. He watched the tall man draw closer. Something in this stranger’s look or bearing reminded him very much of Moth.

 

Then it was too late.

 

The man came to Will’s tracks, halted suddenly, and looked up. His icy, almost colourless eyes found Will’s and held them, and Will knew that these were the eyes that had looked through his in the mirror shard.

 

“Will Lightfoot,” the man said, and smiled coldly. “In a city called …. Fable.”

 

Will backed away, and the snow fell thicker and faster. The stranger receded into it, until his red robe became a faint blur and then vanished completely. Will found himself alone again in a nowhere of whirling whiteness, not even sure any more which way was up or down. The cold was seeping into him now, dulling his thoughts and making his limbs sluggish. He staggered backward and fell, tumbling over and over. The snow was in his eyes, his ears, his mouth. He curled up into a ball.

 

This is a dream, he whispered feverishly. I have to wake up.

 

“Will?”

 

The girl’s voice. Rowen.

 

He sat up. He was awake now. In his bed in Master Pendrake’s house. Rowen was

knocking at the door.

 

“Will? I heard you shout.”

 

“I’m fine,” he called out. “Just a dream.”

 

“Oh. Are you sure you’re all right?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Well, I’ll be downstairs then. I’ll ask Edweth to make us something.”

 

Will climbed groggily from the bed.His old clothes were hanging in the wardrobe. Hedressed and went down to the kitchen, where he found Rowen and Edweth. For a moment he considered telling them about his disturbing dream, but decided against it. He discovered he had slept through the rest of the previous day and night, and it was now morning. The housekeeper had just made breakfast, and Will’s stomach growled hungrily as he surveyed the food spread out on the table. There was fresh bread with jam and honey, eggs and ham and sausage, and berries in cream.

 

As Will tucked in, Rowen told him that her grandfather had already gone out.

 

“And he made it very clear,” Edweth said, “that the two of you are to stay here, in this house, until he comes back.”

 

After breakfast Rowen suggested they go up to her grandfather’s workshop and look at his maps.

 

“I know you don’t want to go home,” she said to Will, “but a map might help you figure out where you are, and where you might go next.”

 

Will already suspected he would not find his own country shown on any map here, but he had to do something other than sit and wait. His dream had seemed so real, and in it the master of the hollows had somehow found him again. And he had spoken the name of Fable as if this was a new and interesting discovery to him. It was only a dream, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that he had led something terrible to the place where Rowen lived. Without meaning to, he had put her and everyone here in danger.

 

In the workshop Rowen found a large parchment map of the Bourne and the surrounding lands. She unrolled the map on a table and put small stones at the corners to keep it flat. Looking over the map Will was dismayed to see that while the Bourne itself was filled in with rivers and roads and place names, the regions beyond the Wood that encircled it were mostly white space. These lands were known as Wildernesse, Rowen told him, and most people from the Bourne avoided passing through them if they could.

 

“Grandfather has travelled all over the Realm,” she said. “He says that in Wildernesse you can’t put much trust in maps. You’re likely to find things very different from what you expect.”

 

Will looked over the map, seeing nothing that offered any clue to help him. His eyes returned to Fable’s island, at the centre.

 

“What’s this?” he asked, pointing to a large black square of ink at the centre.

 

“That’s the Archive of Fable,” Rowen said. “It has a lot of maps, and documents, and books, too, of course. They say there’s a book there for everyone in the Realm.”

 

“I’m going there,” Will said. “You said there was a book for everyone. Maybe there’s one that can tell me how to get out of here.”

 

“Well, maybe, but …” Rowen pursed her lips. “You heard what Edweth said.”

 

“I’m not sitting here and doing nothing while those hollows are out there looking for me.”

 

“If Grandfather finds out ….”

 

“You don’t listen to him,” Will said. “Why should I?”

 

Rowen sighed. She went to the door and listened for a moment. Then she turned to Will.

 

“We’ll have to get past Edweth,” she said. “That won’t be easy. Come on.”

 

 

***

 

 

Unlike most of the structures he had seen so far in Fable, the black, pitted walls of the Archive of Fable were not made of bookstones, but rather seemed carved of one single great mass of rock.

 

“They say this building was once a single book,” Rowen said. “The biggest book in the ancient library.”

 

Wide steps led up to the entrance. At the bottom, a large grey dog was curled up, fast asleep and ignored by everyone who hurried by. Will had wanted a dog when he was younger but his father was always coming up with reasons why they couldn’t get one. As he climbed the steps Will wondered now whose dog this was, or whether it had a home and a master at all.

 

Will and Rowen passed without speaking through the wide doors of the archive’s entrance and into a long hall, lit by tall narrow lamps in deep alcoves. On both sides of the central aisle down which they walked stood large desks at which men and women sat, scratching busily with quill pens or sorting through stacks of books and papers.

 

“The assistant archivists,” Rowen whispered. “A cranky bunch. Worse than Edweth. Try not to make noise.”

 

Rowen and Will walked quietly and quickly past the people at the desks, none of whom gave them the merest glance. At the far end of the hall, in the centre of a semi-circular space from which several corridors branched off, was the tallest desk of all, a massive pulpit of carved oak. From where Will and Rowen stood, only the shiny top of a bald head and the end of a furiously fluttering quill feather could be seen. Rowen cleared her throat.

 

“Excuse me,” she said.

 

The feather stopped fluttering. The bald head stirred slightly, and a voice mumbled something unintelligible.

 

“Excuse me,” Rowen said again.

 

There was another grunt, and then the entire head rose up into view. It belonged to a very old man with a long, thin face, a large beak of a nose, and a straggly white beard sprouting from his chin. His hands reached over and clutched the edge of the desk, and Will saw that all the nails were trimmed short, save one on the index finger of the right hand that poked out, yellow and jagged-edged, like a single claw. The old man glowered down at them in silence.

 

“We need help, please,” Rowen said, her voice raised slightly above a whisper.

 

“Speak up,” the old man said, cocking his head to one side.

 

“We need help with something important,” Rowen said more loudly, and her voice echoed in the long hall. The scratching of quills stopped. Most of the assistant archivists had raised their heads and were staring at Will and Rowen.

 

The old man tapped the desk with his one long nail.

 

“Consult the catalogues,” he said dismissively, in a voice like gravel crunched underfoot.

 

“I don’t think it would help us,” Rowen said, and she gestured to Will. “We’re looking for something for him.And he’s not…”

 

The old man frowned and peered down at Will. Now all of the archivists were staring openly in his direction.

 

“He’s not what?” the old man said, not taking his iron gaze off Will.

 

“We’re looking for a book or a map,” Rowen said, her voice trailing off weakly. “Or something. He’s from Elsewhere, you see, and we wondered if there was maybe something here for him.

 

“What makes him think there is such a document here?”

 

“She told me there was,” Will blurted out, pointing at Rowen. She opened her mouth, shut it again then glowered at him. The old man stared coldly at both of them, his yellow talon now tapping the side of his head.

 

“Nymm,” he said. A small sour-faced man with inkstained fingers popped up from his desk like a jack-in-the-box and hurried over.

 

“Someone looking for hisbook, Nymm,” the old man said, a thin trickle of amusement leaking into his voice.

 

The assistant archivist bowed slightly and, without another word, led Will and Rowen down the furthest corridor on their left. At the far end of its long curve they came out into a large circular room. It was lit by hanging glass globes that contained what looked like messenger wisps, glowing dimly.

 

In the room were more books than Will had ever seen. Far more than his old school library, or even the big public library downtown where Mom used to take him on Saturday afternoons, when he was little. Before he got tired of books and stories and spent all his time out with his friends. Sometimes Mom would ask him if he wanted to go to the library with her. He always said no, when he said anything to her at all.

 

Tall cases filled with books and rolled-up scrolls ran around the perimeter, and two other, higher galleries of shelves rose above to a domed glass ceiling. In addition to all the books lining the shelves on three floors, stacks and heaps and pyramids of books sat everywhere, even piled on top of the large desk that stood in the middle of the room. Here and there people were sitting at tables, absorbed in their reading, or copying from texts and making notes. Between the shelves on the main floor stood tall cabinets with many drawers, and now and then one of the drawers would slide open noiselessly, and something that resembled a large white butterfly would dart out and flutter over to one of the tables, where it would settle, either on the tabletop, or on a book, or on the arm of a reader.

 

When one of the butterflies passed close to Will, he saw that it was in fact a piece of paper folded down the middle to form what looked like a pair of wings.

 

“You may as well start here, in the catalogue room,” Nymm said. He went over to one of the desks, took a quill pen out of its stand, and handed it to Will.

 

“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,” Will muttered. The archivist rolled his eyes.

 

“Never been in an archive before, likely,” he muttered. “Well, what is it you want your book to do for you?”

 

“Get me out of here.”

 

“Well, then, when one of the catalogue slips comes to you, write your request on it, and then follow the slip. A simple matter, for most.”

 

“It’s that easy?”

 

“I did not say easy,” Nymm snapped. “I said simple, and I meant the second definition of the word, as found in the Eleventh Compendium of the Languages of the Realm, volume seventy-three. Simplein the sense of straightforward. If the slip can find your book, it will. If it can’t, I suggest you try somewhere else.”

 

“Is there somewhere else?” Will asked.

 

“No,” Nymm said, with a cold smile. He turned and went out the way he had come.

 

Will pulled out a chair and sat down at the table, pushing aside a stack of books to make some room in front of him. Rowen had wandered over to a shelf and was looking at the titles on spines. Two other people were sitting at the far end of the long table, but had their heads bent over books and paid him no attention. He didn’t have long to wait. After a few moments he heard a soft flutter in the air, and a slip landed gently on the back of his hand, its paper wings stirring slightly as it settled on its chosen perch. Carefully Will took the slip by one corner and set it onto the table, where its wings spread open and it lay flat and motionless, like an ordinary scrap of paper.

 

Will lifted the quill pen and set the nib to the paper, expecting the slip to move. It did not stir. Tentatively he scratched a line. Nothing appeared.

 

“You need ink,” Rowen said. Will jumped. She was standing right behind him.

 

Will frowned and dipped the pen in the black bottle at his elbow. He held it poised over the slip.

 

“Have you ever done this?” he whispered to Rowen.

 

“No. I use the catalogues. What’s the matter?”

 

“I don’t know what to write.”

 

“Just ask for what you want, like he said. Simple, remember?”

 

Will rolled his eyes and set the nib to the paper again. He thought for a moment, then to his own surprise, he wrote the word home.

 

He plunked the pen back into its stand, covering the paper with his hand so Rowen wouldn’t see what he’d written.An instant later the slip’s wings began to rise again, and then to beat rapidly, like the wings of a hummingbird. It fluttered up from the table, sped across the room, hovered at the arched entrance to one of the dim branching corridors, and suddenly shot away.

 

Will jumped up, and with a backward glance at Rowen, ran after the slip. It was just ahead of him, darting down a long, narrow aisle of books. He was able to nearly catch up with it, and then suddenly it changed direction and zipped away down a side-aisle. Will followed. At the end of this aisle there was an wider space, where the floor was littered with slips. There were three doorways here, each leading to a dim hallway that branched off at an angle. The slip slowed to a hover at this spot, so that Will was able to catch up with it at last.

 

“Which one?” he asked.

 

The slip chose the left-hand door and sped away. Again Will followed. The hallway led into another maze-like room filled with tall shelves crammed with books and scrolls and bundles of paper tied with strings and ribbon. The slip flew up and down the aisles, stopping only for a moment here and there, giving Will time to catch up before it hurried off again. Up, down, left, right … there seemed to be no plan or purpose to the paper’s flight, and Will’s confidence in its powers began to wane. They went through another passageway into yet another book-filled room, where the shelves rose up so high Will could not make out their tops in the gloom. Here the slip halted at last and Will caught up to it again. The tiny scrap of paper was trembling, with excitement or fear or what, Will didn’t know. It fluttered in a circle, round and round, as if it was lost.

 

“Are we there?” Will asked, feeling foolish talking to a piece of paper. “Is this the right room at least?” The silence and solitude of this gloomy, seemingly endless building was beginning to make his skin crawl.

 

The slip suddenly burst into flight again. It chose an aisle, went up it, then back down again, crossed over to another aisle, sped down its length, and then went through another doorway into another room. When Will came out into this room, he thought it looked strangely familiar, until he realized they were back in the catalogue room. There were the people still sitting at the desks, and there was Rowen, standing at a shelf with a book in her hands, looking at Will in stunned surprise. The slip didn’t slow down here but headed straight for the main doors, and Will ran after it, into the entrance hall.

 

The slip was hovering in the middle of the hall, just above Nymm’s head.

 

“Defective,” the archivist was muttering, while he clawed at the slip bobbing just out of reach. “It’s the scrap bin for you.”

 

As soon as Will appeared, the slip gave a flutter and darted away again, out the front doors.

 

Will followed, and Rowen caught up to him a moment later.

 

The slip reached the top of the steps and stopped there, trembling in the air, as if the noise and brightness outside had overwhelmed it.

 

“What’s it doing?” Rowen asked. “Why did it come out here?”

 

The slip beat its wings a few times, frantically, and then it seemed to give up and let the breeze take it. Will reached to catch it, but too late. The tiny paper whirled away, and in another moment it had vanished into the bustle and confusion of the busy street.

 

Will sighed.

 

“Well, that really got me far,” he said.

 

“Do you want to try again, with another slip?” Rowen asked.

 

“No, this is pointless,” Will said. He headed dejectedly down the steps.

 

“We should get back to the toyshop,” Rowen said, “before Grandfather does.”

 

Will didn’t reply. Reaching the base of the steps he saw that the dog was still there, curled up and still apparently sleeping. It seemed to have nowhere to go.

 

Like me, Will thought.

 

“Do you have any food with you?” he asked Rowen.

 

She dug in her pack.

 

“Just some biscuits,” she said.

 

Will took one from her. He squatted down and put the biscuit on the ground in front of the dog.

 

“Here you go,” he said, and turned to walk away.

 

“Thank you,” said a strange voice.

 

Will turned back in alarm. The dog had raised his head and was looking at him.

 

“You spoke,” Will said.

 

“So did you,” the dog said, and at that moment Will realized something else. The thick grey fur, the long snout, the gleaming yellow eyes … this was no dog. Will backed away.

 

“You’re a wolf,” Will said.

 

“You are not,” the wolf said.

 

The strange creature climbed to its feet and looked searchingly at Will with large yellow-gold eyes. Now that he wasn’t lying down and curled up, the wolf looked much larger than Will had thought at first.

 

“I was waiting …” the wolf said. “I was sent to find someone…”

 

“We’ll let you wait then,” Will said, taking another step back. “We’re just leaving.”

 

The wolf lifted his snout and sniffed the air.

 

“I was sent to find someone,” he said again. “Here, in this place.”

 

“Well, I’m not from this place,” Will said. “I’m lost. I hope you find who you’re looking for.”

 

The wolf’s fur bristled and its great ears perked up.

 

“Lost,” he said, taking a step closer to Will on his huge shaggy paws. “Someone who is not from here…”

 

“I’m sorry I woke you. I didn’t mean to. Enjoy the biscuit, if you like biscuits. We’ll be on our way now.”

 

The wolf arched his back and shook himself, just like a dog waking from a long, satisfying nap. Then he sniffed the air again, and Will saw with a shiver that the wolf’s large, gleaming eyes were definitely those of a hunting animal.

 

“Yes,” the wolf said. “I was told I would be woken by someone from another place, someone who was lost. You woke me, little not-wolf with the biscuits. You are lost. It must be you.”

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