Bright rays of morning light leaked past my eyelids, stirred my mind, and enticed me back to the world.
The sun had risen high enough to reflect off of the paved roads and brick buildings, filling my room with the city’s white glare. I opened my eyes to see the glare mingling with the dust that danced in the seldom-opened window. My eyes followed the beam of light from the window to the pillow beside me, where it was caught in a web of scarlet curls.
Prudence was still asleep, though her eyes were squeezed tight as though to protest the invading light. I could not bear to reach out to wake her- to be the one who caused her eyes to squint open, and her mouth to frown.
Then a loud thumping at the door caused me to jump up, and my heart to thump in response.
Prudence continued to sleep as though she had heard nothing.
There was a strange discord in the air- the morning light contrasted sharply with the dark shadows the lie behind the curtains. There was a second thump at the door, and at that moment a cloud fell across the sun, blotting the glare away. A dark premonition fell over me, and I could not silence the voice in my mind that said danger.
I reached out and shook Prudence. “Wake up- put on your veil. Someone is knocking.”
Prudence groaned and sat up, but she put on the veil so I could not see her frown. Then I got up and unlocked the door, and I saw Mercy on the other side.
“Good Morning, my Lady,” Mercy said with just a bit of annoyance at the edge of her sweet voice. “Do you need me to help you dress? Brother Lux will arrive soon to examine your father.”
“Of course- thank you,” I said.
Prudence rushed past us, muttering that she would wake Celeste.
My father sat stiffly against plush velvet cushions, dressed in a satin dressing gown that hung off of his thin shoulders. He hadn’t moved since the moment I arrived, except to sit up when directed by Dr. Pearson, and to swallow a spoonful of medicine. Now he was staring blankly into a bright beam of sunlight without even blinking or squinting his eyes.
I went to the window and drew the curtains shut.
“I had hoped that your presence would reach him,” Dr. Pearson, said sadly. “You are Lord Ainsworth’s closest relation. Perhaps if you speak to him-“
Just then the door opened, and Brother Lux entered the room.
All at once, my father’s countenance changed. His eyes went wide with fear, and he pressed back against his cushions as though trying to escape.
“Don’t come closer,” he whimpered. “Don’t touch me.”
Brother Lux shut the door, and then sat on a stool near the bed.
“I will not touch you, my Lord- not until you give me leave,” he said in a low, soft voice. “For now, I just wish to speak with you.”
My father stared at Brother Lux for a long time as though bewildered. Dr. Pearson moved away from the bed and nodded to Brother Lux, as though giving him leave to question the patient.
“I went to Willowbrook- I did,” Father finally ventured in a hoarse croak. “They brought me here.”
“It’s alright, Verdant City is a place of healing,” Brother Lux said gently. “Your loved ones only wish to see you well.”
“No no-“ Father fell against his pillows again and stared up at the ceiling. “They want me to burn. They all want me to burn. Hell is too good a place- a worse fate awaits me. It is all over.”
Father sighed deeply, and then looked up at Brother Lux. “You are the eagle- but you can have the rose. I will not stop you if you take the rose. Just please- don’t take me yet.”
Brother Lux turned to me. “Do his words make any sense to you?”
It was not difficult to maintain an expression of dull confusion, though I felt a chill run up my spine as Brother Lux watched me.
“He’s speaking of a fairy tale, like Lady Fairfax said last night.”
Brother Lux regarded me a few moments more, and then he stood and turned to my father.
“I will not touch you until you give me leave, my Lord,” Brother Lux said, “but I will not go until I’ve examined you.”
“I will not stop you- I cannot stop you,” Father said. “Just take the rose.”
My father let out a groan from so deep inside it seemed to rattle his chest, and I stepped backward in terror. But then my father went quiet, and his breathing became even. It was as though he had fallen asleep- his chest still rose and fell rhythmically.
“Lady Frey, come here. I need your assistance,” Brother Lux said as he approached my father. “Do what you can to keep your father quiet while I examine him.”
Unsure of what else to do, I gingerly took my father’s hand. It was the first time I’d ever held my father’s hand. It wasn’t much larger than my own, and though his skin was covered in age spots, it was not overly thin or wrinkled. I squeezed his hand, but he did not respond; his hand hung passively as I held it.
Father groaned a little, but he did not otherwise protest as Brother Lux took his pulse, felt his glands, and looked into his mouth and eyes. Then Brother Lux placed his hand over my father’s head, as though to feel for a fever, and left it there as he spoke.
“Answer my questions as best you can, my Lord” Brother Lux said. “How old are you?”
“I- I was 35. I was 35.” My father said in an agitated voice.
“When is your birthday?”
“It was too long ago.”
“What is your daughter’s name?”
My father moved, then, pulling his hand away from mine. “Joy has the child. Joy will not give her back.”
“Father- I am here,” I said quietly.
My father turned to look at me, then. He knitted his brow as he stared at me, and he struggled to sit up again.
“No, Harmony- you shouldn’t be in the city. You will get ill again. Go to the country, ride your horse, get exercise and fresh air.”
“Not Harmony, Father; I’m Grace, and I am perfectly well.”
He fell back against his pillows and groaned. “Doctor- doctor, advise my wife. Take her back to the country. She can’t be confined in the city. She will get ill…”
“No- it’s me.” I protested. “Look at me.”
Brother Lux looked at me and shook his head, silencing my protests.
“It’s alright. We will make sure Harmony is well,” Brother Lux said soothingly, placing his hand over my father’s head once more. “Close your eyes, now. Rest.”
Father fell back against the pillows, shut his eyes, and became still.
Then Brother Lux gestured for Dr. Pearson and me to follow, and we went to the next room, where Brother Lux shut the door.
I found myself in a study, which despite being a good-sized room, seemed smaller for the profusion of books. The bookshelves were overstuffed and books spilled onto every table, tumbled onto all of the chairs, and there was not a square-inch visible on the large desk. Brother Lux cleared a stack of books from the desk chair and sat down.
“You have a remarkable method with patients, Brother,” Dr Pearson said, perching his slight frame on a stack of very large volumes that stood near the desk. “I haven’t gotten an answer from Lord Ainsworth for weeks.”
“I have seen such cases, before,” Brother Lux said. “In my opinion-“
Brother Lux’s words were cut short, however, when the hall door opened and Lady Fairfax entered.
“Brother,” she said, and she took Brother Lux’s offered hand as he stood to greet her. “I do hope that you were able to learn something about my dear cousin’s condition.”
“I was, Lady,” Brother Lux said.
Lady Fairfax nodded, and deftly stepped around Brother Lux to take the desk chair from him. Brother Lux nodded to her humbly as she passed, and took the smaller chair across the desk.
“As I was just mentioning to Dr. Pearson, I’ve seen cases like Lord Ainsworth’s before. In older patients, mental faculties can sometimes go into sharp decline. Lord Ainsworth’s anxiety, confusion, and his inability to recognize his loved ones and surroundings are all indicative of dementia.”
“Doctor?” Lady Fairfax turned to Dr. Pearson beseechingly, as though seeking a contradiction.
Dr. Pearson, however, stroked his long, white whiskers with a thoughtful expression. “Well, yes, that diagnosis does seem to fit all of the symptoms. He seemed to be raving, at first, but since your conversation it’s clear that he’s merely confused.”
“Then- is there something that may be done for him?” Lady Fairfax asked.
Dr. Pearson fell silent.
Brother Lux rose and went to Lady Fairfax, taking her hand in his. At this gesture, Lady Fairfax’s regal bearing seemed to crumble away, and her eyes filled with tears.
“I promise, my Lady, that we will do everything we can to keep Lord Ainsworth quiet and comfortable. With enough care, we may be able to relieve his worst symptoms.”
Lady Fairfax nodded meekly, even as tears dripped from her face onto the books below. Her tear had fallen on a worn, paper dust jacket, and where it spattered, ink smudged and ran.
I then the entire scene smudged, and my breath caught. The guilt I’d been nursing swelled inside of me until I could not breathe.
“Please excuse me,” I whispered before I rose and fled the room.
My vision was so blurred with tears that I hardly knew where I was going, but I felt myself climbing staircase after staircase, and when I blinked my tears away I saw where I had gone.
In times of trouble, my feet always remember to seek the quiet comfort of a library.
The library was in a dusty, forgotten corner of the house. In my childhood, I had called the room the ‘accidental library’ because it was obvious the room was built to be a garret. Over the years, however, rough shelves had been built into the walls, filling the high wall at the back of the room, the crooked walls where the ceiling sloped downward, and even squeezed into the side where the ceiling hung so low that an adult could not stand. There were also two mismatched free-standing bookcases that stood where they just touched the vaulted ceiling, creating a tiny room behind them.
There was no desk, table, or chair in the room, but there were a number of worn, velvet cushions where I had often sat. Now I fell into one of the cushions and allowed myself to weep.
I wept until my tears ran dry, and then I looked around the room once more. The library was almost entirely unchanged, except a little more dust had settled in the corners, and the skylight seemed a little dirtier, making dark smudges across the patch of sunlight on the stained wood floor. A memory, as dusty as the room itself, filtered into my mind.
A young girl ran into the dusty garret and slammed the door behind her.
The girl was long limbed and skinny- a little tall for her nine years, though she was far from finished growing. Her white pinafore was only half-pinned, and a tangle of dark curls fell into her eyes. The girl pulled her hair back and leaned against the door, listening for the growl of the monster that pursued her.
“Where the devil is Miss Sutton? I can’t get anything done with THAT DAMN GIRL underfoot.”
The girl stiffened against the door as footsteps echoed up the stairwell, but then the footsteps paused, and finally retreated. The girl pressed her ear against the door and held her breath until the footsteps faded completely into the distance.
Then she heaved a heavy sigh, relaxed, and stepped into the room.
All around her, shelves of books towered up to the ceiling, frustratingly out of touch without stair or ladder to reach them. She looked up at the books, the ceiling, and the skylight, turning around and around to look until she felt dizzy.
Then footsteps echoed up the stairs once more. “I don’t know where the girl is. I was trying to dress her when the threw a tantrum.”
The girl froze, and then reached up to touch her tumbled hair. Her governess, Miss Sutton, had been in a foul mood that morning, and had pulled and yanked her curls until she thought her scalp would be pulled clean off. The girl had screamed and run, and that had been when she encountered the monster.
Recalling the danger, the girl ran again, ducking behind the bookcases.
Then the girl grew a deep breath, and a smile tugged at her lips. She had found herself in a little room that was entirely made of books- there were books on all the walls, books stacked in piles on the floor, and even old book covers that papered the low ceiling. A small footpath between stacks of books led to a low-backed chair, which itself was surrounded by stacks of books.
“It’s a fortress- a fortress of stories,” the little girl whispered reverently. “Nothing can ever find me, here.”
The girl pinned her own pinafore, ran her fingers through her hair, and grabbed the nearest book. She would stay in her little fortress, safe from the monsters, until the storm of anger had stilled outside and it was safe to emerge for tea.
The little girl sat down, opened the book, and read,
The Tale of the Magi
In the kingdom of Excelsior there were two great mages. One was a holy mage, who lived at the top of a mountain, and one was a witch, who lived in a bog.
I awakened from my reverie and stood. I had thought I was a different person than the little girl who had hidden from her father and her governess over a decade hence, yet I found myself in the same position- hiding in a fortress of stories from the frightening reality below.
Had my memories played tricks on me? The recollection of my first journey to the library had seemed very clear, but I thought my mind must have substituted the Tale of the Magi- the story from my stolen book that had been torn out and lost- for whatever I had actually read on that morning so long ago.
I walked through the opening in the bookcases and ducked into the little room behind them. I was too tall to stand upright in the little room, now. I had to stoop down until I reached the low-backed chair and was able to sit. Then I looked around, searching for a familiar book cover.
A faded blue cover in the pile near the chair caught my eye, and I reached out and opened the book.
Folk Tales of the Midlands, as told by the Vole Brothers
I turned another page, and there I saw the story.
The Tale of the Magi
How had I forgotten the tale? As I read, the story unfolded itself in my memory. Two mages, a holy mage and a witch, had battled each other for a hundred years. Unable to get the better of the holy mage, the witch sent spies to watch the holy mage carefully in the hopes that he would unlock the secret of his enemy’s power.
Eventually, the witch learned that the mage possessed a magic mirror, which he guarded most carefully. The mirror always showed the mage’s face, whether the mage looked into the mirror or not.
The witch, guessing that the mirror was the secret to the mage’s power, cast a spell of sleep over the mage’s palace, and sent his servant in to steal the mage’s mirror. When the mage awakened and found the mirror was gone, he fell into despair, for the mirror had been a phylactery that contained the mage’s very soul.
The mage could not perform magic without the mirror, so he was forced to travel by foot through the witch’s bog, facing one dangerous adventure after another, until he finally reached the witch’s lair. There, he found the witch guarding the mirror. The witch laughed at the mage as he approached, mocking his powerlessness.
This is how the mage replied:
“I have journeyed long through the dark and misty bog in search of my soul. You have sent trial after trial to stop me, but with each trial I surpassed, my will has grown stronger. I no longer need the soul that is contained in the mirror, for I’ve found the strength to create a soul of my own.”
With these words, the mage unleashed a holy spell so powerful that the witch was destroyed forever.
I put the book aside.
No wonder I could not remember this story, I thought. The books contained here were my fortress when they should have been my guide.
I stood, smoothed my dress, and combed my fingers through my hair.
Then I opened the door and descended the garret steps into my father’s house.