As we duck through the door into the Grand Hall of the Libarrow, I tense. I smell smoke. But when Jerone and I take a quick survey, we see that the room has barely been touched. The occulus splashes light in, dappling the low tables under which rest all the books we’ve written next to those of our ancestors and their ancestors. Since last we were here, someone has finished and bound the previous chronicle and begun a new one, its leaves loosely tied so we can write about the year and read about theirs, and placed it at the appropriate place.
But there is nothing here that shines, nor anything that would fill a belly. So the Hoarders have left it. We walk across the barrow, hearing the toughguys come in behind us, bowing through the door. We duck through the opposite door to enter the kitchen.
Here, they have raided. The kitchen has no occulus, instead using a bamboo chimney that bends from the wall-built stove. They have successfully lit a small lamp, using some of our precious squirrel oil rather than open the windows for light.
The potatoes closest to the surface of the potato pit have been bitten raw and discarded, but it would appear that they do not understand that underneath them lie many hundreds more, dug into the ground and kept dark so they do not sprout, the oldest brought to the surface by each tribe as they come through, then eaten or planted, as required.
The Free People of the North have been unable to start the stove, as they did not open the choke, and air could not circulate to join heat with fuel. The kitchen is the source of the smell of smoke, but we breathe a smoky breath of relief: Their repeated attempts have left nothing but ash and a way to tell which books predate their presence and which come after.
I look behind us. Hunching through the door come Lord Golden, followed by his entourage. The kitchen is uncomfortable under usual circumstances with four adults and children. It is crowded tightly now.
I say, “Lord Golden, I can teach you how to light this fire with your hands and feed your tribe.” He scoffs and gestures to a slave, who approaches. Skinny, with a grey cast to her brown skin. I show her the choke. “This is how air enters the fire. When you wish to bank the fire, slide it closed, like this.” I slide it. “Try lighting the fire now.”
She seems ashamed and speaks quietly. “Our ember was extinguished as I attempted before.
“Ah!” Jerone says, “Ours is well! Excuse me,” they say, squeezing through the crowd of people. They are finding Patrit, who tends our fires. But, more importantly, it will give Jerone time to tell everyone else what is happening in the Libarrow.
“We have ways to make all of these things work. I will show you so you can do your duties,” I say.
“Good,” says Lord Golden.
Once the fire is lit and its fury is focused on a pot, we begin boiling potatoes. We also reveal the first pots of peaches. Some of the green ones have pickled well, taking on the pungent, aromatic scent and salty flavors that the People of the Red Wood love as the specialty of this place, a font of childhood memories.
The Hoarders do not.
The ripe peaches have done what they do best: become wine. Some still taste sweet, some have become vinegar that we can use for many things, including one that is both sour and sweet with a smell like grapes. We read the label to see who packed it last year. The notes indicate that Becco packed it, but treated it no differently than the others they packed. We will have to note it and see if we can reproduce it.
And some on the peaches have become wine. As the rain begins outside, we close the occulus of the Great Hall with the sodden bamboo vent cover, and celebrate our shared safety. We eat peaches together, telling stories interwoven with Lord Golden’s admittedly entrancing stories (Piti tries writing them down, but the peaches have taken their mind and they fall asleep during a tale told by Lord Golden in which he wrestled a squid).
And when the Free People of the North — and most of our Libarrians — sleep crowded into the Libarrow, I say to the slave who lit the fire, “I am Synd. What is your name?”
“I am the Skinny One,” they say.
“Okay, Skinny One, I’m going to show you something that will help you.”
But one oil lamp burns at this late hour. I reach across Jerone, who sleeps lightly, opening their eyes just a bit to let me know that they’re still alert for danger.
I select a book from under the table and illuminate it with the lamp. The flickering light spreads across the page to our night-adjusted eyes.
“We call these,” I say, pointing to each one, “We call these letters.”