THE BURNING BOOK
College of Errensea, 3057.6.02
For Seama Beltomé even the beginning was traumatic.
It was a muggy day in June. The students were four weeks away from term end and many were suffering still the annual examinations. Bad tempers, a crowded library, grumpy teachers desperate for the summer break, and now a dreadful, sultry, storm-threatening wind rolling in from the Spurling Sea: this was his least favourite time of year. Thank the stars he wasn’t a teacher. The knowledge, the books, the dedication to learning was all fine; the thought of having to cope with whole classrooms of panicking young men and women, completely terrifying. It was hard enough trying to get to grips with his own capabilities. Today the palpable nervousness that filled the corridors and common rooms was so oppressive Seama decided he would be best out of it. He put away his papers, changed out of his gown in favour of more sporting clothes, picked up a duelling sword and made his way over to the lists.
It wasn’t far. The College occupied several acres of the land between the City of Errensea and The Quays, the ancient river harbour of the island now made redundant by the more substantial docks of the Eastern Bay. The lists lay alongside The Quays, just behind the Escartine Library.
Lance-work was taught still, though the fashion of war was changing in the world outside, and mounted archery had become popular among the more adventurous students, and so in most months of the year the lists were a groaning place of straining horses, struggling youths and, inevitably, a regular stream of injuries. For the month of June, however, the lists were deserted: a concession to those more modern-thinking educators who insisted that the real work of the College was more to do with the mind than the body, and that martial arts should be not be encouraged. Much to Seama’s disgust there were now no examinations offered in the art of war.
In the half-covered practice yard was a space given over to swordplay and that was where Seama found a morose Fox Garner, chewing hard on his sliver of mint twig and crudely, with hammer and nails, fixing new limbs to the battered wooden stroke-stocks.
‘Glad to see them gone, Gaz?’
Fox looked up, pleased to be distracted. ‘No. I hate this job – bores me to death. Rather be shouting at the kids any day.’
‘Better you than me. On either job.’
Fox shrugged. ‘Those who can do – the rest of us get saddled with all this. Oh I can’t wait to retire. Just one more year, Seama, and I’ll be out that front gate dancing and singing and I won’t look back.’
Seama didn’t know whether to believe him. Fox Garner had always seemed so pleased with his work. ‘Oh come on Gaz, it can’t be as bad as all that. Or can it?’
‘Depends on what you mean by bad. You know me. I do things my own way. It’s a rough job, a rough study. People get bruises.’
‘And the odd broken limb?’
‘Only six this year – ha! Pathetic isn’t it.’ Fox spat out his stick in disgust, clearly disappointed the tally was not worse. Life, it seemed, like his mint wood, had lost its flavour. He whacked hard with his hammer at a protruding nail on the nearest frame.
Seama thought he recognized the signs. ‘What is it this time?’
‘Waldin’s a bloody old woman, Seama, and he’s driving me mad! Look, it’s my job to make sure they can use a sword properly, not wave it about like a three year old. Make sure they can fight their corner. That’s what we’re about isn’t it? To make them the best they can be? Now how the jiggery can I do that without the odd accident, every now and then? Not as if we can’t fix ‘em. But every flaming week, down he comes from his fancy office, stands there watching ‘em with that snivelly look on his face, and then starts badgering on at me about how reckless I am. And with the kids watching, an’all! I tell you, one more brainless letter from some pansy of a parent about his poor little Algernon and his stupid black eye and that’s it, I’m gone. ‘Why can’t you just use the stocks to teach them?’ he says. I’ll give ‘im stocks – and not this sort, neither. As if I was hurting ‘em for no reason. As if I liked it!’
Seama raised his brows at that one. ‘Times change, Gaz, people expect us to be a bit more careful.’
‘People are getting soft.’
‘Maybe,’ Seama conceded. ‘Things are not so bad these days. We’re making progress, Gaz. Well, that’s what they say.’
‘And who are they then?’
‘Well, all those people who don’t have my job to do for a start. And all those people living in the cities who’ve never seen a sword, still less used one. In fact, all those people we’ve been spending all these years trying to protect.’
Garner decided to bash at another nail. ‘Things get quiet for a bit,’ he said, between blows, ‘and everybody thinks – bash – the world’s changed – bash – and all the bad things – bash – have gone away – BASH – it’s pathetic!’
Seama couldn’t help smiling. Fox never changed.
‘What’re you grinning about?’
‘They can’t help it, Gaz. They want to live quiet lives; they can’t see why it shouldn’t be possible.’
‘I hope not.’
For all his faults at least Garner’s pessimism had nothing malicious about it: he nodded sincerely enough. ‘Well I hope not too, Seama, but you know I’m right.’ He gave a great sigh. ‘No, forget it,’ he said, ‘not worth the bother. Anyway, did you come down here just to lecture me or is that blade of yours going to get some use?’
‘I’m hoping. Seems like an age since I last did anything. I need to loosen up, Gaz.’
‘Loosen up or sharpen up?’
‘Both. Sometimes this place is too straight and too dull for words. I need to get out and about. Things’ve been far too quiet for far too long.’
‘Well come on then,’ Fox said, tossing his hammer into a tool-box, ‘let’s get it sorted.’
It was hot, and the yard dusty, and the pair of them needed pints of water to get through, but at least it was action. They were playing best of nine – hits on the breast-plate that was. Both were skilled enough to make sure the hit was a knock-back without being heavy enough to cause damage. Most of Garner’s students would have been terrified by the apparent ferocity and speed of attack. Three – two to Garner and a clever feint and twist gave him a fourth but when the point of his sword snaked through and caught Seama low on the right, his opponent swung away as if he’d been pole-axed. Garner backed off expecting some sneaky ploy.
‘You’ll not catch me like that Seama,’ he said.
But it was no ploy. Seama dropped his sword and clutched at his temples.
‘Gods above,’ he cried, ‘That damn well hurts!’
‘But I hardly touched you.’
Seama stood erect. He shook his head as if trying to get rid of water in his ears. The most peculiar sensation had gripped him. A sudden knowledge of danger mixed with a calling impossible to ignore. And he knew the source immediately. He had been called once before and the memory of the compulsion had not left him. But so strong was the summons this time, so strident, it rattled in his head.
‘You alright, Seama?’
‘Yes, I… uhm… Oh, not again! Look Gaz, I have to…’ He bent to scoop for his sword but changed his mind. ‘I have to go!’ he yelled and took-off at a sprint, leaving his weapon lying in the dust of the yard and his friend utterly bewildered.
People swung out of his way as he pounded along the pavements aware that if they did not move life would not seem so good. He was projecting a warning even as he ran. He took the steps of the library entrance three at a time, charged through the vestibule and as he reached the Great Floor he was shouting out for Holander and Grek to follow. Hurtling down the ancient steps to the lower stack he collided with a couple of dawdling students, their papers spewing everywhere – he didn’t stop to apologise. By the time he reached the grille door of the secure area he could hear Holander clattering along behind, a predictable stream of unpleasant oaths tumbling from the chronicler’s lips as he ran.
By now the summons was shrieking inside Seama’s head. The problem was close and critical. And yet this time there was no one there: Holander’s Crypt was locked. Seama used his key, crashed open the door and raced through the aisles, desperate for release. At an intersection indistinguishable from all the rest he flung himself to the floor and kneeling, passed his hands over the cold marble in two wide arcs, drawing a circle about him. The stridor filled his head and made it difficult to concentrate but he knew the formula full well and launched into it. As he spoke the words of the spell, rather loudly, he bent forward and touched the floor with his forehead.
‘They’re safe!’ he announced. Holander and Grek had caught up with him. ‘No one has touched them.’ The Great Books were no longer kept in a cabinet visible to the naked eye. The Council had learned a lesson some time ago and now the key works were held in a place both within the library and yet removed from it. The mystery of how to gain access to these perilous volumes was a fiercely guarded secret.
Seama staggered to his feet, head in hands. Those few words were as much as he could manage. The shrieking sound was now intolerable.
‘So what’s going on then?’ Holander demanded, ‘What’s happening Seama? Seama?’
The wizard had begun to sway. He knew it must be here somewhere. He lifted an arm and pointed back the way they had come. The other two turned to look and then staggered as one of the shelves just beyond them exploded into flames. The shrieking stopped. Free at last, Seama plunged forwards into the billowing smoke. Reckless of the danger he sank his hands into the fire to reach for the book that was burning. He tried to block out the heat, repel the fierce flames, restrict the damage, but his calm had been shattered by the racket in his head and he didn’t get it right. The flames were fierce, rapacious, grasping. The sleeves of Seama’s shirt bloomed in a ball of fire, the pain hit him like a hammer. He collapsed. Holander and Grek wasted no time. As they hauled him away, Grek produced a spell that drenched the wizard’s clothes, she doused too the huge book that lay beside him. Holander gripped Seama by his shoulders.
‘Are you alive, Seama? Speak to me!’
Seama coughed and spat. Ashes from the reeking fire hung in the air.
‘Yes, yes,’ he gasped, ‘I just… ahh… just fainted. I think. I’m fine; fine.’
‘Well you don’t look fine.’
He did not. The practice breastplate had been some protection but the chemical flames had ripped through his sleeves and collar reducing them to clinging cinders; his neck and shoulders were blistered but it was the state of his left arm that shocked them.
‘Gods Seama! It’s unnatural. How could it burn so hot? That’ll never heal.’
Seama looked at the blackened and mutilated limb in some alarm, appalled by the scale of the damage. He tried joking about it.
‘My technique must be better than I thought: I can barely feel a thing.’
‘Never mind the technique, you’ve burnt the nerves. You wait till you start growing them back, then you’ll feel it.’
‘You have a splendid bedside manner, Holander.’
‘Look at this,’ Grek interrupted. She was examining the book. Most of the pages had burned to ash, the remnant a soggy mess. With delicate skill she had begun already the task of ex-spelling the water and had managed to peel apart the first few pages without causing damage. ‘It’s something of Haslem’s.’
Seama looked up making his vision swim and roll. He was very nearly sick and yet…
‘Let me guess: something called The Song of Ages?’
‘Can’t tell you just now, Seama, the cover boards are wrecked and the title page is half gone but it’s Haslem’s hand, no question.’
‘It must be the Song.’ Seama had no doubt. ‘Don’t you remember, Hol? When the ‘Randálan tried to become Taprod?’
‘That was quite some time ago, Seama, thirty years or more.’
‘Was it?’ Seama was surprised. Sitting on the floor, struggling to kill the nausea that threatened to overwhelm, he glanced up at the concerned face above him. Wrinkles were deep around Holander’s eyes, his hair was white and only a hint of black stayed in his beard. Thirty years indeed. Seama grimaced as a wave of pain from the better arm rolled over the numbing spell that was meant to contain it.
‘We’re going to have to get you to the infirmary Seama. I’ve called the Master. Let’s forget about the book.’
‘That’s what we did last time, now look at it.’
‘We were a little busy weren’t we? He stole the Mayoris if you recall.’
‘Of course I do!’ Seama couldn’t help snapping as the pain got the better of him once more. ‘I’ve burnt my arms not my head!’
Holander grinned. ‘You are human then?’
Seama smiled ruefully. ‘Yes, Holander: as human as the rest of you, and just as easily distracted. If I’d gotten round to reading the book the last time it called—’
‘But I thought it was the Mayoris summoned you.’
‘So did I then, but now I’m not so sure. You remember how we found The Song?’
‘Not sure I do, Seama.’
‘It was sticking out too far, the dust had been knocked off it. That’s what I thought. It just seemed out of place. But what if I was meant to find it? It was definitely The Song calling me today.’
‘Well it won’t be calling you again,’ said Grek, ‘Best part of it’s completely destroyed. I’ll get started on rescuing what I can, no doubt of that, but you won’t get much. What ah… what was it about?’
What was it about? Seama hadn’t found time to read it. The distraction had been a serious challenge to the power of Errensea. The Song of Ages had been re-shelved and then forgotten once more. It didn’t seem so important at the time.
THE BEST OF MEN
SONG OF AGES
An epic fantasy of monsters, gods, warriors and wizards, of heedless villains and decent everyday people.
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A Song of Ages