The storm howls through the bamboo for days, bending them until the largest, toughest ones burst, coughing sharp needles into the air. We use our squirrel oil sparingly, but it is dark inside the libarrow and we must see to read. While one of us writes, another reads from the same lamp to the too-many occupants. We read to them the tales of Allis each day, who chases rabbits and grows large and small. Lord Golden laughs at the nurse who bellows and shakes the baby and again at how she outwits the cards — which we explain to Lord Golden are leaves with writing and pictures on them, like books, but unbound so you don’t know what order they come in. He wants to know where this Wonderland is so that he can see its leaf people, and asks if Allis is still alive, that she sounds like a powerful shaman who might tell his future.
We explain that we do not know the way to Wonderland, and that Allis died when the world was cold and the sky was filled with smoke. He ponders this. “We all die,” says Jerone lightly.
Tension rises in the room. Jerone and I pass glances around. Others feel it, and the eyes of the Free People of the North are all on Lord Golden, whose face is rigid. The toughguy to his right is looking directly at Jerone. “You will never speak of Lord Golden, who will live forever, in that way again. Lord Golden will live forever.”
Jerone opens their mouth to say something, but instead says, “I apologize Lord Golden.”
Lord Golden’s hand is on his club, but it is only a warning — he, more than anyone else knows that he could not swing it in the enclosed space of the Great Room. “You meant to refer to all of you when you said ‘we’,” he states, gesturing at the others here gathered. It is not a question.
“Yeh,” says Jerone, “All the Libarrians here gathered, but only the mortals of your Free People of the North. Of course.”
The wind outside makes the silence inside all the more pronounced.
We know there will be no time to approach the next barrow once the first storm has hit. We stay in the small, close, humid place. We go outside to tend the gardens. The peaches have been hit hard. We gather the greens up for pickling, but even the ones left on the trees are hurt and none of them will ripen properly. We will make no wine this year.
On a beautiful day when we have captured a whole herd of fat squirrels and are roasting them outside over a fire, storing rendered fat but leaving enough to make the meat delicious, looking at our dwindling salt supply, I ask Lord Golden, “Magnificent Lord, The Skinny One shows talent as a scribe who could inscribe your tales for all time. May I teach her its craft, that she may bring you intelligence from those who have come before, and leave tales of your might for your descendants?”
Lord Golden makes a show of weighing the matter sagely before deciding it doesn’t matter to him, and maybe it will be fun. “You have my permission,” he says, holding his head high.
Skinny One shows no small interest. She learns the alphabet quickly, then words. When we approach words that are spelled the occult ways, we teach them to her where none will hear us. And we show her how to search the Libarrow, how the books are stored. After two months, we even show her where the secret books are.
We show her Ries and Fal of the Roemn Empieer. We write back and forth its secrets so none can hear us.
She is from a sea people, squid hunters of the East who call themselves the Purple, who make beads we have all seen, but until now did not know from where they came. Steppan writes down her tale of how her people make them, grinding them from the hard shell of sea animals. They sail catamarans made of bamboo and wood. They know the stars and can sail out of sight of land. She was captured by Lord Golden before she was old enough to bear children when her tribe had been inland, gathering sacred water that allowed their clams to grow.
She tells me that Lord Golden had more toughguys then, that once the Purple saw that they were fighting for their lives, they used all their skills with harpoon and hook to ensure that Lord Golden would never return to the Narrowgannet Bay. But she saw her brother and sister die before Lord Golden’s toughguys. She saw thee toughguys’ flesh ripped off with barbed spears. And then she remembered only being seized, then nothing else for almost a whole moon.
Shawneh and their children and partners have been making paper, since we have much crushed bamboo and abundant time in the barrow. We fill them with The Skinny One’s story, first showing her how to write the names of her family in between the words that I or Jerone write. Then she writes more more and more of the words as she learns them. Then, when she knows how to spell , she writes the whole story of her people. We carefully bind it and preserve it in the Libarrow. When the next Libarrians come here, they will read it.
I show The Skinny One a book. It tells the story of Everyone Loves Him, a fearsome warrior, destined for greatness and immortality, who, in the Rusting Times, sought to build a farm and a walled city. He went on a quest to find the iron, the oil, and the slaves, then built the farm and its walls and called it the Tower of Power. Smoke came from its chimneys and the farm ploughed and planted and gathered food by itself, as the tools of the Rust Age could do. And Everyone Loves Him issued a challenge, telling every messenger who could hear: Any who entered his walls alone, treading the perilous Way of the Warrior without aid or succor from another, would live forever there with him in the riches of the Tower of Power.
And I show her the secret words in the book, to never be read aloud. She nods. She understands them.
From that time on, Skinny One listens and records Lord Golden’s brags that, if they are untrue, it is only in details; she writes down his ribald tales that make us laugh, and future generations of Libarrians will hear his tales of when he defeated the giant squid; or when he fought a thunderbolt and it left him with its power. Or when he battled Superman, who became his friend and lover. And she reads him back the stories, noting when he has additions or corrections in the pages. Assembling the record. Some of it she puts to song.
And she reads him other stories. Not just Alis, but also Superman and Sojourner Truth.
And then she reads him the story of Everyone Loves Him.
That day was dark. The fourth hurricane so far. We sat inside, listening to stories, eating bamboo shoots and gull. As the story ended, The Skinny One said, as though reading (though I know these words do not lie within those pages), “Only the most courageous have made the journey. None have returned, and surely they have arrived and live there to this day.”
Lord Golden smiled at this, but said nothing.
The Skinny One and Jerone wrote the new words into the tale.
When the storm had broken two days later and we stood outside, enjoying the sun and gentle breeze while we tended the garden and repaired the chimney. Lord Golden said to me, “Which way is the Warrior Way?”
I said, “To the Northwest. Into the hills.”
He said nothing of it again, but told Skinny One to tell him the story again twice before the next hurricane arrived.
While we sheltered in the barrow, now smelling of exhaustion and pickles, Lord Golden instructed his slaves to assemble his provisions. Dried meat. Water. Pickles. Potatoes, boiled then dried to be boiled again before being eaten. His prize glass bottle, filled with the last of the peach wine and topped with water.
Lord Golden stood in the morning light, his backpack upon his back, his war club in his hand. His wives — we have never learned their names and they will not speak to us — carefully comb his hair and utter blessings.
Jerone approaches Lord Golden and says, “May your stride never falter. May the 100-pointed stag clear the path before you. May you find that which you seek.”
Lord Golden, his chin held high, walked toward the deer path to the northwest of the Libarrow’s now-regrowing bamboo clearing. When he reached the edge, he turned and addressed us. “Be glad that you have had this time with me. The tales you tell of knowing me and my glory will bring you great honor and many will want your sex because you have been close to me. You, my people the Free People of the North, will find your way by remembering me.” He addresses one of the toughguys. “Crag, the tribe is yours as you are mine. When I send for you, bring the tribe to the Tower of Power.”
He turns and walks into the grove.
Crag grins broadly, but not with surprise. “I will be like your own hands,” he says proudly to his Lord. The other two toughguys look at each other behind his back before repeating to Crag, “I will be like your own hands.”
The following evening, we reveal the hidden cask of peach wine. We sing and drink. We offer the precious preserve to the three toughguys first, diluting it with water for the rest of us.
While the toughguys sleep, we kill them with knapped glass at their throats. We roast them and consume them to share what they have hoarded. We use their brains and urine to tan leather in which to bind the story of this year. We turn their intestines to thread with which to bind the books. Their nails and hair become glue. We plant their remains under the trees to feed the peaches for the coming years.
In a few weeks we agree that the last of the storms has cleared. The wives choose names: Caerissa, Teor, and Alis. The Skinny One says she likes her name. The other slaves call themselves Gaeri, Criis, Taemaa, and Aern.
We set on our westward journey to the Abani Libarrow, our tribe now stronger as we teach letters to our new friends, each gaining initiation when they learn the secret spellings.
Behind us, we have tended the garden, grafted the trees where they broke. Repaired the chimneys again. Stored pickles of peaches and bamboo shoots. And the absurd Rust wagon, upon which we write the sacred word: “FREE”.