Storytime with Stidmama

Chapter Ninety Eight

Supper that evening was pleasant, if simple. Root vegetables with a creamy sauce, grain-bread for dipping, a very satisfying stew with meat of uncertain origin. The younger woman served and then sat at the end of the table, seemingly content to listen to Tor and her aunt talking about the village and the people they knew.

"But tell me, Tor, did Nan recover? Such a shock that must have been for everyone."

Tor leaned back and stifled a yawn, "She did seem to recover, though once Esmeralda got her interested in the medicines she seemed to fade away. She is still a sweet girl, but so wrapped up in her studies and work." Tor shook his head and shrugged, reaching for the mulled wine.

"And the Visitor who came, did that have anything to do with her recovery?"

Tor didn't notice the woman's eagerness except to assume that, like all librarians, she was hungry for knowledge.

"Oh, she loved working with Cathy -- that's my eldest sister, you know -- and the three of them all shared so many things. Cathy was injured when she was a child, too, so they had that in common. And Esmeralda, though stern with most, treats Nan like a beloved granddaughter, patient even when Nan makes a rare mistake.

"I don't know if the Visitor was very helpful in Nan's recovery, though. Seemed to come and go mysteriously, never really stayed long enough to have done anything, I don't think."

Tor considered a moment longer, "No, I suspect it was Esmeralda's skill, and Cathy and Gilly's patient care that did it. And, of course, Nan's own determination. She's a spunky young thing, and she was so fascinated by all the bandages and syrups and lotions and such... I think sometimes she was distracted from the pain by the novelty. Most other children would have resisted the exercises that helped her become strong again."

The younger woman smiled into her own mug of wine and shook her head, perhaps remembering what it was like to be young and discover a passion.

The elder librarian, looked fondly at her niece, sharing the thought, and refilled Tor's mug absentmindedly.

"You must think me somewhat rude to ask such personal questions when we are still newly met. Still, I have something I would like to show you, that may explain my interest in both your family and the shipment you fortuitously brought to this city."

She excused herself, and disappeared in the direction of the main library, returning swiftly with a small box and a large older volume. The box was simple in design, but brightly painted, like some of the trinkets Paul had brought back from his travels. The book, when opened, completely covered one end of the large kitchen table. Tor looked at it curiously.

"I have seen a book like this," he murmured, "long ago..."

The librarian smiled grimly, "And I suspect it was not a pleasant time for you, eh?" She pointed to a column in the middle of the book, written in spidery, old-fashioned script. Tor could just make out that it was a list of names and dates.

"You see, this is the family tree of your doctor, on her father's side. And this," she indicated an adjacent line, "is your brother-in-law's."

Tor nodded. Genealogy really wasn't his thing. But he kept his silence and listened politely. He wondered momentarily how the old woman had come to know so much about his family and village. A passing acquaintance with the doctor seemed too flimsy a connection.

"You must know, that both Esmeralda and your sister's husband are from the bird people, at least on this side of their family -- their fathers' sides. The Visitor of whom you spoke may be their connection to their family, from whom they have been banished."

She glanced at the younger woman, as if considering her next words very carefully.

"In the box lies a charm for something that threatens these partial-bird people. It was brought to me by a Visitor such as you described, to protect my niece many years ago. It may be that Esmeralda will know how to use it for your own niece."

She handed it to Tor but kept her grip on it as she said, "But you must not tell anyone but Esmeralda where it came from, nor show it to any but those who work in her shop. There are still people who fear the bird people and their scattered half-breed offspring."

Tor caught his breath, then whispered, "But how could Nan be affected? If her father is only half..." The thought trailed off, and a glimmer of understanding hovered just past his consciousness.

The librarian nodded, and let go the box, which Tor tucked gently into his coat.

They turned again to the book. On a different page, the librarian explained a series of symbols. The town from which the book had originated had been overcome by a strange malaise, and the treasures of the Keep had been scattered, to prevent them from all falling into misuse. The books Tor was carrying were part of the treasure, special on their own, but --

"This list here, in the box, indicates how many ribbons, of what type and color," the women pored over the page with eager eyes though they obviously had memorized it years ago, "without the list, which puts them in order, the words on the ribbons will mean nothing. But together..."

Tor's mouth hung open in astonishment, the mug of wine in his hands forgotten -- a trick in and of itself.

He finished the sentence, "Together, they provide information on the location of the other treasures?"

The librarian smiled.


The younger woman looked excitedly at Tor, "Of course, the treasures are not likely to look like much, any more than this pile of mouldering books you brought us. Still, they will be valuable in their own way. Were you to agree to help..."

The elder woman nodded, "We would make sure you were compensated for your efforts."

Tor sat down, a hand on the small box for Esmeralda, another hand on his scruffy chin. The prickly stubble seemed to wake him from a trance, and he leapt up again.

"Yes!" he boomed, laughing, "Why not?"

The librarian held up her hand suddenly and fear spread across her face, "Hssh. A sound..."

Carefully, Tor put his ear to the door, hearing a scuffling sound. He tried the door, but it wouldn't move. Something had been placed against it to keep it closed. He heard a voice calling on the the other side.

Bang of a door thrown open. Heavy feet running, and lighter feet following. Clatter of hooves and wagon wheels on the cobbles of the alley. A gust of cold air.

Tor put all his might into the door, finally shattering the chair that had been wedged against it. They ran into the main room of the library, to find that the tables on which the books had been neatly sorted were empty. The main door had been forced. The younger woman sobbed in dismay, the librarian grimly said, "Much good may it do them. I have all but one..."