After Beltran’s visit, some of my restrictions were lifted. I was not allowed to speak to Etude and had no idea where in the cavernous dungeons he was being held—the same dungeons where the Eye was discovered by the first maestri some seven centuries before. I was also kept from the high towers, where everything important seemed to happen. But there was a garden promenade left open to the sky and I was allowed access to it and to the library. Both were utterly, unspeakably magnificent. The library was large enough that one could genuinely get lost. I was never a scholar like Hank, but being raised in the centuries before television, books have remained my first love, and over the next several weeks, I spent many hours between those stacks in the company of voices past—not only the authors of old and cherished books but also the ghosts that would sometimes steal them when my back was turned. I learned quickly to feign disinterest before making a selection, lest the book I had chosen be whisked away behind me. Their thefts were an attempt, I’m sure, to get me to go innocently searching, to explore the buttressed vaults, caged nooks, and octagonal chambers that connected each to the other inside the same great chamber. One could lean out of portal windows or over carved-wood balustrades and see the robed librarians patiently about their work. But like truth itself, there was no vantage in the library from which all of it was visible. Chambers faced away from each other or else were blocked by stone stairways that ended abruptly in space. I was sure that through at least one of those arches—which were especially numerous at the lower levels, full as they were of columns holding the whole of it aloft—I could fall into the shadow realm.
Of all the spirits that pestered me like children in those weeks, I made acquaintance with only one. Judging from her dress, which I only caught in glimpses between the shadows, my girl was a servant in the time of Cromwell. She must have spent much of her life scrubbing the floor, for that is what she did compulsively. When she spoke, it was always to herself or to someone else not present—in King James’s English. I heard only fragments of stories, and she would often disappear midway through. Sometimes she would glance at me first, like a wild animal, as if just realizing I was there before blinking away in fright. But as one week turned to two, and two to three, my continued presence in the library coaxed a certain calm from her, as with a tiger, and she told me stories. She didn’t relate them directly, but if I sat and read near the lower arches—which were close enough to the sea that I could hear the gentle lapping of the Mediterranean—she would often appear after a gap of quiet, scrubbing the floor (always scrubbing, scrubbing) and talking to herself, which was of course talking to me. I would put a finger in my book and close it and look away from her, to the floor, and listen as she told a friend named Charlotte, who was not present, all the reasons she should stay away from the farm boy down the lane, for he was a ne’er-do-well if ever there was one. The dead are disembodied and irrational. Their world is memory, and they speak in dreams. I listened to numerous arguments with a man—a father, perhaps, or a lord—about why she hadn’t cleaned the kitchen or brushed the horses. She told a great many lies, especially about where she went when she wasn’t needed and why it was she lingered so long there.
How she came to the Keep of Solomon, I can only guess, but the reason for her departure from her home seemed clear. Her unconsummated dalliance with the farm boy down the lane had turned sour after she caught him mounting her friend Charlotte behind a tree. Realizing he had no intention of honoring his promises, for which she had cheated her lord out of a small dowry, an offense for which she could’ve been hanged, she planned to visit a “lady of the dells”—a witch—to procure her revenge. It was not to be fatal. It would merely teach the boy a lesson. But it required a day’s travel, round trip, and servants in those days did not have week-ends. She managed a clever deception involving a prized mare and the “accidental” throwing of a shoe. She was to take the animal to town, and since travel then was risky and roads sparse, schedules were always imprecise. It would’ve been easy for her to take the necessary detour, especially since she would not actually have to lead the animal on foot, as her master thought, but would be able to ride it bareback. The money she had swindled for a dowry would go to the witch as payment for services.
On the eve of her departure, the maid Charlotte either guessed the truth from her friend’s oblique boasts or perhaps stumbled upon her preparations and subsequently informed their master. Although my young acquaintance didn’t say, I suspect she was indentured—slavery in all but name—and eventually came in service to The Masters, where she met her end within the walls of the Keep of Solomon and remained there as a wayward spirit. Whatever had happened at the end, she didn’t speak of it, as if it didn’t matter to her or had only been the natural consequence of her love for the farm boy. I think she was also worried for me. I think she understood I was a prisoner of some kind, as she had been. I think she was also jealous, as the dead often are of the living, and angry at what had happened to her, and sad about it as well, and all of those emotions played out in her speech, sometimes across a span of mere sentences as she scrubbed, scrubbed, scrubbed the floor, as if wiping it of her sins.
Early one morning, while busy with a pale and brush, my friend airily explained to Charlotte that she was so beautiful and could do so much better than a simple farm boy down the lane. Amid the rest, I heard the word “escape.” It was spoken in the same voice, but the tone and cadence were different, as if interjected from a different time and place. I looked up and the young woman was peering at me. She was speaking gaily to her absent friend, but her eyes were on me.
I nodded, and she disappeared again.
Amid the shelves of that library, I rediscovered bits of my past, including a rare manuscript by Wilm Castleby, penned in his hand. Seeing his familiar scratch brought back memories I had completely forgotten—not ones eaten by the forest but those simply lost in the years. I also discovered a collection of antique photographic plates made of glass, some of which had cracked and been mended with tape or glue. They filled a series of chests inlaid with wood grooves, each holding a single vertical plate. The Masters, or rather the librarians and scribes who worked for them in the 19th century, had used the new medium of photography to record the last of the woodfolk and the child-races, whose numbers had by then precipitously declined. Many of them had fled to other realms after the pogroms of the 17th century, but many more still had been “harvested” a century later, during the so-called Age of Enlightenment, when innumerable pieces were cut from their bodies, living or dead, and sold to fill wunderkammer and gentleman’s cabinets of curiosity. By the 19th century, precious few were left, and The Masters’ scribes made portraits, etched into glass with salts of silver. I saw twig-fingered treeherders mourning ricks of corpses, giggling gnomes hidden under furniture and machinery, preens of pixies pushed under rulers and tape measures, naked and ashamed. Some of the images were quite poignant, such as the satyr mother bent over the still body of her faun, her breasts still heavy with milk. Others were disturbing. Many of the pixies were clearly cowed by rough-gloved fingers, and their tiger-striped wings forcibly and painfully spread open. The presence of several empty slots in the chest immediately after suggested there were more such images somewhere, perhaps pornographic ones.
rough cut from the fifth and final course of my full-course occult mystery, FEAST OF SHADOWS. Part One is available now. The epic urban fantasy concludes next year with Part Two.
cover image by Andreas Rocha