- Rachel Rossano
Once Upon 2021: Reclaiming Ryda - Chapter One
Aside from home, never had a sight been so welcome as the gleaming towers of the Duke of Worthenave’s fortress in the early-morning sunlight. I viewed the sprawling multi-towered castle crowding the crag's upper heights above a picturesque town with a considerable measure of relief. The oasis of civilization would be sizable enough to offer provisions and a dry, warm place to sleep after a long journey. Most important of all, it promised a farrier to help the limping horse snuffing in my ear.
“Why do all the tops look so bright?” My recently acquired traveling companion, a lad by the name of Pip, squinted against the glare of the sun on the gold. “And why are they so shiny? They gold or something?”
“I read that the roofs were gilded with gold by a duke three generations back as a demonstration of wealth.”
Pip snorted. “Foolish use for gold.” He adjusted his share of the horse’s load as he started along the path to the trade road below.
“What purposes would you recommend instead?” I asked, partially out of curiosity and the rest because I hoped it would keep him chattering for a while. As Pip listed all the ways he would have used such a sum of money, most of them involving food, I returned to my musings.
My home in Areyuthia lay almost three months’ journey north and west from Worthenave. It was a long way to come for an answer to a genealogical question, but it was necessary. My father had sent me to find a proof of lineage that would determine the fate of the seven duchies of the northern wilds.
Tracing the family tree of the late, great Duke of Avalene, the last ruler to join the seven duchies under one rule, had proven harder than I anticipated. My quest had begun with an argument. It hadn’t even been mine. Russett, one of my eleven brothers, proclaimed that all the rulers of the duchies could trace their family line back to the great duke. Another brother had immediately denied such a claim. Hours later, they had come to me to settle it once and for all.
Three years later, I was still searching. However, for the first time, I had hope that I might find the final evidence hidden in the walled castle before us. Only if the Duke of Worthenave gave me leave to search for it.
“Will they let us in?” Pip leaped from rock to rock along the edge of the even surface of the trade road.
“To the city?” I frowned at him. “Why wouldn’t they? Do you have some horrible past that would make them bar you from entering their city?”
Pip laughed. “No! I am not some great thief.”
I eyed him with fake suspicion. “Are you sure? How do I know you won’t steal me blind?” We had been traveling companions only since my hasty exit from Greenwood’s capital just a week past. Pip’s possible past adventures as a bandit, thief, or highwayman had reached legendary proportions in our banter.
“What would I steal?” he protested. “Your ink or your quills?”
“Well, you do need supplies to practice your lettering.”
He rolled his eyes. “And what would that get me? I can barely form all the letters. Nay, you need not fear. I will do that until I have mastered those at least.”
“Let us not forget the proper spelling of things. You will need to learn that as well if you will make a scribe worth hiring.”
“I know! I know that well enough. No need to nag so.” He quickened his step. “One would think you were the horse instead of the master,” he muttered as he skipped ahead.
I let him go but kept an eye out for where he went. At my best guess, Pip counted eleven years to his life. He hadn’t been well fed most of those years, so perhaps my estimate was off by a handful of years. However, the lad couldn’t swear by it, having been born on the streets of the Greenwood capital and never knowing his parents.
I recalled those years between childhood and manhood in my own life easily. Young ones sometimes needed space to reason things out for themselves. I had no fear he would return.
As expected, he did just that after a few conversations with some of our fellow travelers. Bouncing back to join me, he fell into step with my weary trudging with far more excitement than I could manage.
“The gates close at nine bells. An inn around the third turning provides consistently clean and bug-free bedding, though the price is slightly higher than others in the vicinity. There is a farrier only three streets farther on from it.” He beamed with pride at his information gathering.
“You did well, but we will not be sleeping in an inn this night if all goes as planned.”
“No?” He frowned at me. “Then where will we sleep? Surely not the streets.”
“Wait and see.” I patted the pocket where I had secreted the letter of introduction from the Duke of Brackenhurst to the Duke of Worthenave. In it, the first duke requested the second grant me leave to search the legendary library of Worthenave for information on behalf of Brackenhurst.
We passed through the city gates without even a second glance by the guards. Beyond, the streets fanned out in multiple directions. Pausing a moment, I was able to mentally place myself on the map I had memorized back in the Duke of Brackenhurst’s library.
“This way.” I set off north, orienting to the right of the castle towers glinting above the town.
“But, the castle is that way.” Pip trotted after me, giving the back of my horse wide berth to come around to my left side.
“I have a map in my head, and the best entrance is from the east.”
“How can you have a whole map in your head?”
“Practice. I told you. The mind is like a muscle. You need to use it regularly, or it won’t cooperate when you need it most.”
“By practice, you mean memorizing old books and long lists,” Pip grumbled.
“Yes, and also maps like the one that will guarantee that we will sleep well tonight. Come.”
After a quick trek through the streets, we reached the eastern gate to the duke’s castle. At least a dozen armed men minded the gate, but not a one even raised an eyebrow when I presented my letter of introduction from the Duke of Brackenhurst. We were led to a stable yard where I left Pip tending the horses. Then I was hurried onward into the castle proper.
The letter worked even more efficiently than Brackenhurst had promised. Within a half-hour, I stood before Worthenave himself in an opulent receiving room. Appointed to look like a throne room with raised dais, intricately carved chair, and gilt accenting practically every surface possible, it seemed to indicate the nature of the duke before he opened his mouth.
“What is this information you seek?” the duke asked as he skimmed the letter, holding the edges of the parchment with his fingertips as though it would give him a disease.
“It is as the Duke of Brackenhurst said, Your Grace. He wishes to know more about several topics and has reached the limits of his library. He sent me to you with the request you hold in hopes that you might allow me access to your more expansive resources.”
Worthenave smirked once, brief and without humor. “As he should. Do you know how far my library goes back?”
“Before the beginning of the kingdoms, I have heard.”
“I possess the most complete collection of Saruthian manuscripts in all the kingdoms, property records that go back to the first great immigration, and military histories penned by the great conqueror Anthonaius himself.” Worthenave lifted his gaze from the letter to my face. “Why should I allow you to finger these great treasures?”
“Such treasure is meant to be shared. How can I spread the word of the vastness and value of your literary treasure, Your Grace, if I don’t witness it myself? If I can but admire it, I can honestly bring back such a glowing report that Brackenhurst himself might be tempted to visit.”
However, despite his less than enthusiastic response, I suspected I had intrigued him. After a moment more of studying the letter in his hand, he passed it back to his scribe. “Give it back to him and see to his comfort.” Worthenave waved the next petitioner to come forward. “Welcome, scribe of Brackenhurst. We will host you.”
As a man of middling age and far more elegant in his attire took my place before the duke, I was waved in the direction of a far doorway. After being passed from messenger to servant to page boy, I began to despair of reaching my destination. Then the lad leading me turned a corner and shoved open an elaborately entwined gate of worked iron.
“Everything you need is in here, my lord. The midday meal is served in the great hall. His Grace’s son, Count Rodney, will come to fetch you before the even’ bell,” the lad informed me before turning on his heel and marching off again.
Would I be allowed to return? Where could I find the records I needed? Was this the only place to search? Was there a librarian who could direct me?
I was tempted to call him back to answer the many questions crowding my mind, but I decided against it. Having reached the inner sanctum of the Duke of Worthenave’s library, I needed to not make a fuss. Better to keep quiet and be easily overlooked so that I might linger all the longer.
Instead, I turned to the gate, double-hung and as elegant as it was impenetrable. I was surprised to discover a lock hanging open from a heavy bar clearly made to prohibit anyone from entering or exiting the room beyond. It was with no small measure of discomfort that I stepped through the gate and let it close behind me. I had no wish to become a prisoner.
A large circular room greater than thrice my height in diameter lay beyond the gate. On all sides from the floor to about two feet below the ceiling, which was well beyond my reach, were shelves laden with all manner of written records. Binders, scrolls, bound volumes, drawers, boxes, and files lined each shelf. Small tags hung from many of them—each card covered in neat writing. Over them, a wooden ladder hung by hooks on a rail that ran the circumference of the room. Above the track, small rectangular windows nested in the thick stone walls between the top shelves and the carved ceiling. In the center of the rotunda lay a thick round carpet. On it sat a large wooden table that had clearly been made to match the shelves and five padded chairs.
I crossed to the table and set my scribe’s bag on the polished surface. As I surveyed the shelves wondering where I ought to begin my search, I came up short. Someone was singing—a woman by the sound of it.
Leaving my bag behind, I turned around searching for the source of the voice, which was how I discovered the stairs. Tucked behind the shelves opposite the gate by which I entered, they could not be seen from the entrance. The narrow steps led upwards, following the curve of the stone tower wall. In the niches where the straight wooden boards of the stairs didn’t quite match the curve of the stone, someone had tucked all kinds of odd things, like clay jars, colorful baskets, and crocheted blankets.
As I climbed, I struggled to focus on the singer’s words. The words weren’t from my native tongue. However, the melody sounded familiar. Then as I came to a halt on the landing just outside a second room almost precisely like the one below, the sounds fell into place.
She was singing in Saruthian.
Pale as the moon all still and lovely, The maiden’s heart longed for his touch. Still, the moon hung quiet, unresponsive, Cold and unfeeling despite her love.
Blinking in the glow of the late-morning light pouring in the octagonal windows above the shelves on this level, I studied the singer as she continued her work. Her honeyed voice washed over me. She was perched halfway up the ladder against the shelf with a bag full of tomes strapped to her hip and a long golden-brown braid falling down her back like a thick rope. I couldn’t help thinking of the ancient Saruthian tale of the captive of the rampion witch.
She was definitely fetching enough to play the role of the captive. With the long length of hair, the color of honey, the hue falling between the alfalfa and buckwheat honeys my bees produced at home, she could snare any man. Her form appeared pleasant as well, slender and curved in all the right ways.
As she reached the last of the verses in the poem, I fully expected her to stop. Stepping into the room, I prepared to introduce myself.
But she didn’t stop. As she set the second-to-last book in place, she began to sing a verse I had never seen in any of my references. My mind scrambled to translate it as she sang. Then she turned around.
A soft squeak escaped her, followed by a heavy thud as the last book fell from her suddenly lax fingers and hit the floor.
“Who are you?”
Crossing to the fallen book, I picked it up and offered it to her. “The Duke of Worthenave gave me leave to search his library.”
Her eyes were green, wide, and far too perceptive as she studied my features.
“Does the moon ever notice the girl?”
“What?” Confusion clouded the emerald depths a moment before she claimed the book from me and turned away to place it on the shelf.
“The girl in the poem you were singing, did the moon ever notice her?”
She briskly climbed down the ladder, ducked under my arm, and strode toward the stairs I had just used. “The usual references are down on the first floor. I will show you where the land records are stored.”
I followed her, keeping extra space between us so as not to startle her further. “That poem, I didn’t know it was a song.”
“It isn’t.” She descended the stairs at the same hurried clip. “I made it into one.” Upon reaching the first floor, she crossed to the tightest-packed shelves right next to the gated entrance. “This is where the land records are stored. Feel free to make use of the table and chairs. They are here for the purpose.” Then she turned away, clearly intent on not lingering to visit.
She hesitated for the barest of moments before continuing back toward the stairs. “You’re welcome.”
He was huge!
I climbed to the third floor before regaining the presence of mind to stop the instinctive need to put space between the invader and me. I sat on the floor, backed myself into my cubby hole, and tried to slow my breathing.
What did the duke hope to accomplish by letting that giant into the library? Why hadn’t he been directed to the general archives first? Usually, inquirers and seekers were sent there first. Only those favored or honored by the Duke of Worthenave were allowed within my domain. It had been nearly six years since the last one had come and gone.
What do I do, Kurios? Seeking wisdom from the invisible God, I wrestled with the anxiety overwhelming me. My thundering heartbeat eventually slowed.
He hadn’t acted aggressively, I reasoned. Neither had he been particularly rude, except for his lack of discretion by not announcing his presence when entering the room. Ah, but he had tried. You were just making a fool of yourself by singing that silly song, I reminded myself.
Letting a stranger into the library might be part of an elaborate plan to force Count Rodney’s hand over the marriage issue. Worthenave’s son had been lingering at the gate when opening it and closing it each day. His sneering grin and biting words had made it clear that his opinion of me had not improved since our meeting. However, that didn’t mean his father wouldn’t press the issue come spring. By my best guess, I was nearing the age of maturity.
I shuddered at the thought of enduring marriage to Rodney. His constant criticisms and crude jokes made me feel sick. Regardless, for some unknown reason, the Duke of Worthenave set his mind on us marrying at some point. Both Rodney and I were to be victims of his will.
I shook away the thought. It never helped to sit and dwell on facts I could not change. I needed to move and act. Four stacks of scrolls extracted for the historical committee’s research into past building plans still needed to be reorganized and stored before I set to the dusting.
Crawling out of my cubby hole, I checked the shutters and latches over my chamber’s windows. The ominous ochre hue of the sky didn’t bode well for the weather that night. Checking latches and snugging up the ties on the windows wasn’t wise when it was dark and windy, especially with a narrow window ledge and four-story drop beyond that. I pushed the pin into the last fastening, making everything secure, and descended into my domain once more.
Distantly the noon bells sounded as I lifted the first of the scrolls into place. Hoping that the stranger would leave for his meal, I continued to replace the scrolls until at least a score of minutes had passed. The last one slid home with satisfying ease. Dusting myself off a bit, I descended to the first floor to check if my meal had arrived.
Only one meal, the standard shavings of meat, a small loaf of bread, a pot of salted butter, and a bit of yellow cheese, lay on a tray at one end of the table. The jug of ale and a wooden cup sat next to the food.
The stranger still lingered. His satchel lay half-empty next to a mess of supplies and logbooks, scratch paper, and empty ink bottles covering the other half of the table. Pens in varying states of decay or disrepair were scattered about as though someone had sought a functional implement in haste and found them all lacking. Then all of it had been shoved toward the end of the table to make room for the tray and such. The delivery boy had shown his customary lack of concern for anything beyond his task.
“Just push anything that is in the way aside.” The stranger himself stood next to the shelves where I had directed him, bent over the oldest log on the shelves.
“There is plenty of room, thank you,” I replied as I set about breaking the loaf into pieces. “Did you take your meal in the great hall?”
“I am well enough for now, thank you.” He didn’t look up from his perusal of the ledger.
From all I had read, large men seemed to require vast quantities of food. I glanced at the invader. He definitely fit the definition of large, but he didn’t have the manner of a warrior. I had seen many of those from my window perch and at my tower’s gate over the years. Though, I would definitely not consider him flabby or soft either.
As I considered the best descriptors for him, he lifted his gaze from the ledger and met my gaze. One golden-brown eyebrow rose in a silent question.
“You do not have the appearance of a man who skips meals regularly.”
“True, I don’t usually, but this is an exception.” He gestured to the laden shelves around us. “I have no way of knowing I will be allowed in again tomorrow.”
I shrugged. “I suspect you will. Worthenave likes showing off his collection, and admirers cannot fully appreciate it in only a single survey.”
“I prefer not to risk it.” His attention returned to the page.
Breaking my bread into two hunks, I opened up one of the linen napkins on the tray. Spreading it out, I set the bread hunk, half the cheese, and the meat shavings on it. I then folded the linen so that the food wouldn’t fall out.
Delivering the bundle took a bit more bravery, but I forced myself to act before I thought on it over much.
“To hold you until the evening meal,” I explained as I dropped it on the open shelf near his elbow. Then I returned to the table to focus on my own meal and turned my back on him.
For a few moments, I feared he would reject it, or worse, take offense that I had not believed him. Only the sounds of him eating finally put me at ease. I devoured my own meal efficiently. As I cleared away the remnants, he approached and dropped the crumpled napkin on top of the pile.
I nodded without lifting my head to read his face. Instead, I picked up the tray and turned away to set it on the small ledge outside the gate, where the page would pick it up again.
By the time I had returned to the table, he had resumed his studying. I walked past without comment and climbed up to the third floor to gather my dusting supplies. I had three levels of books and shelves to wipe before dark.
Hours later, as I set the last wiped book on the bottom shelf nearest the door, my keeper arrived with a jangling of keys. I stood to my feet and attempted to get out of the way, but I was too slow.
“Enjoying your company, worm?” Count Rodney asked as he swung the gate open so that it bumped against my toes. He grabbed the shelf behind me, trapping me in the space between the metal gate and the bookcase. He leaned close, his yellowy-brown eyes glaring at me through the bars. “You had better not spill any secrets to him,” he hissed in a whisper. “Da wouldn’t appreciate it. Might beat you again if you do.” His eyes glinted. “Perhaps he would let me do it.”
A loud clearing of a throat from behind the count announced that we weren’t alone.
“Ah, yes.” Rodney turned around, unblocking me from my prison, to face the giant. “I was told to extend a personal invitation to you for the evening meal, traveler. My father does enjoy a tale or two with his meals and would love to hear your story.”
I slipped off to the side, putting space between Rodney and me while still maintaining a distance from the stranger.
The traveler eyed me for a moment before responding to Rodney.
“I would prefer to remain here. I have many more volumes to work through before I leave.”
“Nonsense. It is folly to spend hours midst dusty tomes when one could be drinking, feasting, and enjoying company. Come, my good sir, and return to this mess tomorrow. It will keep. Besides, I have to lock up for the night now.” Rodney swung his key ring around on one finger. “No one is admitted until tomorrow morning.”
I slipped off then. It was easier than staying and being humiliated when Rodney locked me in like a common criminal. The library was a pleasant prison, but I was a prisoner, nonetheless.
(hopefully April 2021)
Rydaria lives as a prisoner in a tower library. Captured as a child, her past is a mystery. Maintaining the literary treasures within her care, she studies the world through books that give her a glimpse of the freedom she craves.
A scribe by trade, Crispin has devoted the last three years of his life seeking the heir of Avalene, the lost eighth duchy. He travels to Worthenave’s famed library in hopes of finding the key. Instead, he discovers a new mystery, a beautiful librarian who never leaves the library and is locked in with her books every night.
As the days pass, Crispin must choose. Rydaria’s precarious situation is deteriorating. While his duty demands he leave before the Duke uncovers his quest. Still, the scribe can’t bring himself to abandon the captive in the library tower, even if it costs him his mission.
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