When you cannot believe a man’s mouth,
when you cannot believe his hands,
believe his eyes.
Lightning flashed in the distance.
“One-from-the-leaf, two-from-the-leaf, three-from-the-leaf…”
From above, Tarro looked a desolate place. The light rain had driven the townsfolk into their houses, leaving the streets empty and glistening in the sunset. Cutting through the center of the town, the River Aylen seemed swollen with outrage at the buildings on either side.
“…four-from-the-leaf, five-from-the-leaf, six-from-the-leaf…”
This was a regular stop for the Skyborn, and the people of Tarro had grown so accustomed to their arrival that Landborn and Skyborn pooled their resources each year for a celebration of their friendship. The date of their arrival always varied, but it could be counted on that the Skyborn would come near the end of the summer. This year they did not disappoint, and when the Leaf landed in Tarro, the leaves had just begun to change colors.
“…seven-from-the-leaf, eight-from-the-leaf, nine-from-the-leaf.” Elmis stopped counting. The heart of the storm was still far off.
As the Leaf began its decent, a great peal of thunder boomed and crashed, loud and long in the distance. Elmis felt it reverberate through his body, and it sounded like distant war drums to his ears. If battle was nigh, he was ready.
Only handful of Landborn greeted the Skyborn, and they seemed eager to head back indoors, where food, drink, and festivities awaited. Elmis followed his parents as far as the first pub.
Elmis had never liked pubs, especially when they were so crowded and loud. Besides, he had never acquired a taste for ale. He disliked losing balance and coordination, mostly because he felt he should be ready to fight at any moment. Barr and the other warriors of the Leaf did not feel the same, and had already pushed their way past Elmis and his little brother, Acorn.
The two shivered under the eaves a pub, watching the droplets of rain flow off the roofs of houses and into the streets. Between the end of summer, the rain, and the sun setting on Tarro’s horizon, the air was chill, but with the lingering memory of warmth. Through the lighted window, Elmis watched Ash and Maple laughing with friends they had not seen in a year’s time. His parents had known him too well to ask if he would join them.
“So,” asked Acorn, “what do you want to do?”
Ash and Maple had always said that if they wanted to remember what Elmis looked like two years younger, they need only look at their younger son. Acorn wore his brown hair long and with a leather cord, just like his older brother. He wore similar clothes and facial expressions. But Acorn mimicked his brother in more than looks, following Elmis closer than his shadow. After Acorn had learned to walk, seeing one brother without the other became a rare occurrence. Sometimes this irritated Elmis, but for the most part, he appreciated the company.
“I don’t know.” Elmis reached out into the rain and caught some in his cupped hand. He let the water fall through his fingers and shook off the remainder. “What I do know is that it’s cold and I don’t want to get wet.”
“There’s no avoiding that, unless you want to stay here.” Acorn gestured to the pub behind them. “We could join Mom and Dad.”
“I’d wrestle a porcupine naked before going back in there. It’s way too crowded.”
“If I could find a porcupine, would you?”
Elmis shook his head and ignored the question. Porcupines did not even live in the area, as far as he knew.
They both looked out into the rain in silence for a while. Muffled sounds of violins and drums emanated from the pub. Elmis changed the subject. “Have you decided yet?”
Acorn looked up, as if stirred out of a standing sleep. He blinked. “Decided what?”
“You know, what mystery you’re going to choose.” Elmis had not broached this subject in a long time.
“Oh, I’m not sure.”
And that was the reason. Despite all the time the two spent together, Elmis sometimes felt he barely knew his brother at all. “Come on. The day you have to decide draws closer, and you should start preparing now, especially if your ceremony is anything like mine.” He felt his bandaged arm where the bobcat bit him.
“Watch out, now. You’re getting close to telling me things I’m not allowed to hear.”
Elmis put his arms down in subdued frustration. At Acorn’s age, he would have been grateful for any hints about the ceremony. “It’s an easy thing to do, Acorn. Just choose which one you like best.”
“But I like them all equally, except for Arbiters that is.”
“Then be an Arbiter! Great Stones! It’s not that complicated.”
Acorn shifted his gaze from the cobbled street up to Elmis’s face. “But I like them the least!”
When Acorn grew uncomfortable, he often resorted to ambiguity, yet Elmis pressed onwards. He had been meaning to talk to his little brother about this for a while. Now with his own ceremony behind him, Acorn’s seemed all the more urgent. “Does that mean you like them all equally, or dislike them all equally?”
Acorn ended the eye contact, looking at the ground. “Both. Isn’t that the meaning of equal?”
“Well yes, but–” Elmis grabbed his brother by the shoulder. “If it’s all the same to you then, join me and become a warrior. We can fight alongside each other and guard each other’s backs, just like we’ve always done.”
Though the two had never witnessed true combat, Acorn had always followed Elmis to the practice yard, where they would team up and spar the other Skyborn children. They never lost.
“I know you can do it; you can use an axe just as well as anyone! Better even!” Excitement crept steadily into his voice. “The two of us could be the best sky raiders that ever lived! The names of Acorn and Alzabar will be feared throughout the world.”
Elmis lost his fervor, donning a hood of irritation. “What? What’s so funny?”
“Come on, Elmis, that name is ridiculous.”
“It is not! It’s a powerful name, and I expect to be addressed by it in the future. Why does everyone still call me Elmis?”
Acorn smirked. “Because they don’t want to sound silly.”
“I’ll beat them silly!” Elmis made a violent gesture with his hands. “I’ll have you know I found that name in a book. It was a legend of a great hero named Alzabar!” With that, he set off into the rain.
“Hey!” called Acorn. “Where are you going?”
“I’m going to go finish that book!” The rain gave him no quarter, and immediately pummeled his head and back as he left the protection of the eaves. He broke into a run.
Acorn laughed and followed. After running through the rain for just under a minute, they arrived at the library. As Elmis spied the arch that led to the door, he shivered. In the dark, the building looked haunted.
The entire thing was made of stone. The library’s history stretched back further than the history of Tarro itself; the librarians had told him it used to be a monastery, and that Tarro had slowly formed around it. Even without knowing this, Elmis could tell it must be a very old building because the stones had not been cut into smooth cubes. Instead, the rocks ranged every shape and size. He had always admired the time and effort ancient artisans had spent putting the rocks into just the right places, fitting together a medley of stone to create walls. Now was no time to admire masonry, with the rain coming down in sheets and soaking his woolen coat.
As he passed under the arch, Elmis the rain relented, although water still dripped from his long hair. He gathered it up and squeezed it, letting the excess water drop out on the stone before he entered. Behind him, Acorn caught up and did the same. Elmis gave himself another good shake, then opened one of the great wooden doors.
He gave a short bow to his brother. “Courtesy is the sign of a great man.”
Acorn smiled. “So it is,” he said, then walked through the doorway.
The inside of the library always surprised Elmis because it looked so much smaller on the outside. All four walls were covered in books, and shelves with more books filled the space in between. Unlike the building itself, many of the books were new. Still, Elmis figured there must be many more older ones as well. Some were even written in different languages, some no longer spoken, some from distant parts of the world. The librarians could tell the age and origin of a book just by looking at it, but Elmis did not care all that much about those details. While he found such skill with books impressive, it did not seem very practical to him.
The two of them were greeted by a short and venerable man with a large, white mustache, which contrasted with the black robes of his office. He was the head librarian, and his name was Simon. Elmis had learned his alphabet from this man at an early age, and had made it his custom to visit each time the Leaf stopped in Tarro. “Ah!” exclaimed the old man, “Elmis, Acorn! I’m glad to see you both.” He nervously twiddled a blue ribbon that he wore on his left breast. “This evening is a great evening for reading! There’s not much else to do, eh?”
This greeting took Elmis aback. Barr trained every Skyborn warrior at reading people, and when Elmis looked into the man’s sky blue eyes, he saw fear. Acorn gave Elmis a quizzical look; he had noticed too. Simon hid something behind his welcoming demeanor.
But they were already ushered in and relieved of their wet over-clothing. It was not as warm as Elmis would have liked inside, and he ran his hands along his arms for heat. Whatever Simon was up to, it was no concern of his. Elmis just wanted to read.
The brothers parted ways, Acorn with the librarian, and Elmis to the book he had been reading for the past few years. As they walked away from each other, Elmis caught his brother’s eye and put his hand flat and horizontal in front of his chest. It was one of the hand signals the two of them had created together while hunting. It simply meant “caution.”
Elmis was not too worried, but still, there was something not quite right at the library. Two other librarians went about their tasks among the books. Like Simon, each wore a blue ribbon over their robes, though theirs were gray. It was strange that librarians would make an addition to their uniforms. When they caught sight of the Skyborn, they stopped for a moment, freezing as if they had just seen a pair of bears. Elmis had seen similar expressions on inexperienced warriors before battle. What inspired this nervous behavior? He did not care enough to ask, but he felt uneasy.
The book he was reading was called The Legend of Alzabar. It was about a young, strong man much like Elmis who had become the greatest warrior in the world by defeating one hundred knights in a row in single combat, all to defend the castle of a great king and win the princess’s heart. Elmis wished he worked for a king under such circumstances. It would make proving his skills so simple. He longed for the days soon to come, when the Leaf would fly over Passal and Longland, kingdoms in which the Skyborn would need to fight to provide for themselves. Barr had told him that a true warrior does not seek out combat like a hunter seeks game, but no one could begrudge Elmis for looking forward to it.
Though there were comfortable chairs to be found throughout the library, Alzabar simply stood among the shelves and started reading.
The burnished gold sun brightly shone
upon Alzabar and Sir Eralon,
Son of the great Duke Alberon.
Sir Eralon fell on his knees.
“Kill me” cried he, “and finish the deed. Please!”
Yet Alzabar was wont to tease.
“No, you must travel home in shame
and tell your father how I overcame
you, and eighty-six knights the same.”
Sir Eralon mounted his horse,
“I will come back, and with a larger force!”
“I shall best you again, of course!”
Then Sir Eralon rode away.
Alzabar thought he was done for the day,
but another knight came his way.
“Who might this be? Another to fight?”
At length, a dark figure came within sight,
his standard flew in fading light.
“It is none other than the valiant Sir Grabone,
son of the rich and mighty King Sabone,
and here he comes to fight me alone.”
Elmis looked up for a moment and saw that Acorn was still talking with Simon. The two of them sat next to each other at a table. They had no books with them, which did not surprise Elmis; Acorn could not read–another result of his stubbornness. Perhaps he would find out from Simon what was bothering the librarians.
He continued reading:
“Come forth and meet my sword,” quoth he,
“I will fight you and best you with glee.
Come now, Alzabar, and fight with me.”
“Let me, Sir Grabone, speak the truth,
I will show you no mercy. Forsooth,
Sir Kempelon was only spared for his youth.”
Sir Grabone called, “Courage, have you shown.
You have taken wounds down to the bone.
Why fight so hard for a King not your own?”
“A true knight needs no reason to fight for the good!
Is not that one of the tenets of knighthood?
A knight does what he can, and he does what he should.”
“And what makes your King on the side of right?
Why not my father? You could be his knight.
You are not unworthy. He knows of your might.”
“Do you try to defeat me with prattle
because you know you shall lose in battle?”
With that, Sir Grabone leapt from his saddle.
“Alzabar, you are a knight great and true.
Know I will kill you with the honor you’re due.”
And with those words, their battle did ensue.
Swords were clashed, armor torn asunder
making sounds that disturbed angels’ slumber,
sounds that made hounds cower, as from thunder.
Those in the castle looked down in fright,
for Alzabar was matched by the new-come knight.
Both became bloodied in course of the fight.
Both knights were strong, and yet eftsoons
the warriors broke apart to tend to their wounds.
Between them, their blood and flesh were strewn.
“You fight well, Sir Grabone,” called Alzabar.
“You fight better than the others by far.
Has your blade been blessed by some magic star?”
“Your sword is strong, knight, and your mind is wise.
I have my motives, as you might surmise,
but a knight keeps secrets until he dies.”
“I will make sure you tell me before you die!”
Alzabar charged back at Sir Grabone with this cry,
and again the sound of their swords rent the sky.
Their bright swords shone in the burnished gold sun.
The two fought for hours and still were not done.
The crowd in the castle went to sleep one by one.
Finally, at midnight, though neither was bested,
the knights broke apart once more to be rested.
Then, Sir Grabone, humbly suggested:
“Shall we fight tomorrow, when our wounds are healed?”
Alzabar sheathed his sword, and took off his shield.
“On the morrow, we meet again in this field.”
And so they retired, Alzabar to the castle
and Sir Grabone to a tent trimmed with tassels
to sleep beside his guards and his vassals.
The night was spent–
Elmis was interrupted when Simon dashed across the room. “Quick, Elmis, you must come with me!”
“What are you talking about, old man?” Elmis searched the room with a glance, but he could not see Acorn among the nearby shelves. His heart started to race; he had known something would happen. He reached down to his belt and pulled out one of his axes, putting the blade to Simon’s throat and shoving the librarian against a bookshelf. “What have you done with my brother?”
“He’s safe! He’s safe, Elmis! I’m trying to help you.” Simon’s eyes widened and he tried to push himself further into the books, away from the blade. “You just have to trust me! Please!”
Elmis examined the man, who panted as much as he could without cutting himself on the edge of the axe. His eyes conveyed a feeling of unease, even behind the fear. “Please, I’m risking my neck enough helping you boys, I don’t need you after it as well.”
Elmis could tell that the librarian indeed wanted to help him, but something remained unspoken. He let Simon go. “If Acorn is harmed in any way, I swear I will kill you.”
Simon looked up at Elmis and straightened his robes. “I’m very glad that he’s all right then.” Simon led Elmis to the back of the library at a quick clip. The books on the shelves blurred in Elmis’s peripheral vision; he kept his eyes focused on Simon’s back. Simon reached a wall and stopped. Elmis glanced around, but he did not see anybody or anything worthy of note. There was nothing here.
“Are you messing with my head, Simon?”
“No,” replied the librarian, shaking his head. “No I’m not, though perhaps the books read have been.” Simon reached out to the bookshelf and removed a book. Then he reached his arm through to the back of the shelf and into the wall. A nearly inaudible click sounded, and then a small grating as the bookshelf pulled back, revealing another room beyond. Elmis looked inside and saw a crouched figure in the corner.
“Acorn!” Elmis rushed over to his brother to find him flipping through the pages of a book. Like the main library, all four walls of this room were covered in them. Elmis’s heart slowed. He turned back to talk to Simon, but the librarian left the room, closing the door behind him. “No!” Elmis pounded on the bookshelf wall. “What are you doing, you crazy old man?”
“Quiet,” called Acorn from the corner. “You’re making a fool of yourself.” He got up and walked over to Elmis, putting his hand on his brother’s shoulder.
Elmis turned and grabbed both of Acorn’s shoulders in return. He made his voice level and calm. “I need to know what’s happening.”
“Well,” Acorn replied, “Simon asked me if I could keep a secret. I said yes, then he took me here. I told him that you should see it too, because you can actually read. Then he dashed out of here like he was having a baby, and you dashed in here like you thought I was dead. Then you started pounding on the walls. What’s the big deal?”
“Simon looked like he was afraid for his life out there. He said he was risking his neck for the two of us.”
Acorn looked right into Elmis’s eyes; both Skyborn had inherited nearly the same shade of light brown from their parents. “You mean the thing everyone is so tense about here?”
“Yeah.” Elmis nodded and let go of his brother, feeling that he had finally conveyed the gravity of the situation.
Acorn closed the book he had brought over. “What could he be protecting us from?”
Elmis sat down on the floor and thought out loud. “I have no idea. It seems like a coward like him would be in here with us.”
Acorn shot him a disapproving glance, then joined him on the floor. “And everyone else here seems to know about it, too, and they’re not hiding either.”
“I’m not so sure we’re in here for our own good.” Elmis sheathed his axe, but he kept his hand rested on it, ready. “Can we trust Simon?”
Acorn took time to consider his answer. “Yes, we can trust Simon. We’ve known him for years. There’s no way he would betray us.”
Of course. Simon had become too close a friend not to trust. “So he must be trying to shield us from something, but why wouldn’t he tell us what the danger is?”
“I don’t know.”
“Whatever his reasons, he’s trying to protect us from something.” Elmis stood up. “and if we would be in danger out there, what about Mom and Dad? What about everyone else?”
Acorn stood up as well. “So, what do we do now?”
“Try to get out of here. Simon used some sort of lever to open the door. There must be one on this side too.” With that, he started pulling books off the shelf.
Acorn was aghast. “Be careful with these, Elmis! These books are all older and more important than you are!” He started searching the shelf himself, carefully setting the books on the floor instead of throwing them in a heap.
“Says the one who can’t read,” Elmis retorted. Still, Elmis knelt down and fixed the pile of books he had tossed to the floor, then he went back and started searching the shelf with more care. After a few more seconds, both of them still had found nothing, but they froze; they had both heard someone scream as if from far away.
After holding his breath and listening for a few more moments, Elmis made to keep taking books off the shelf, but another scream stopped him, and then another. The noise outside built up until it became a constant, confusing mesh of screams and shouts. The building shook, and they heard raised voices inside the library.
“Are there any in here?” someone shouted. Elmis did not recognize the voice.
“No sir,” Simon replied. “There aren’t any in here.”
“Well, we’re going to look anyway.”
“No, please, don’t ruin the books! I tell you there are no leaf gypsies here!” Shelves of books crashed to the floor and Simon’s protestations devolved into sobs.
After pausing for a few more moments, waiting for and hearing no more dialogue, Elmis renewed his efforts to find the lever. Acorn grabbed his brother’s arm. “Are you insane? Do you really want to be out there right now? Simon put us in here for a reason!”
Elmis threw off his brother’s grip. “I am a warrior. I refuse to sit tight while an old man risks his life to protect me.”
A fight had come sooner than the Skyborn anticipated, sooner than Elmis could have hoped, and he would not spend it inside a hiding hole, and neither would his brother, if he had anything to say about it.
“Could you really live with yourself afterward if we did nothing?”
Acorn looked at his feet in shame. Outside they could still hear pandemonium. Groans and screams penetrated the walls and made their way into Acorn’s heart. He shivered, but looked back up at Elmis with a new determination in his eyes. “No.”