The price of a thousand lives

The price of a thousand lives

Status: In Progress

Genre: Fantasy

Houses:

Details

Status: In Progress

Genre: Fantasy

Houses:

Summary

Raised in one of their country´s poorest cities, a couple of siblings will have to fight all odds when disgrace comes barging in through the door. Alcohol as never been a sweeter resort.
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Summary

Raised in one of their country´s poorest cities, a couple of siblings will have to fight all odds when disgrace comes barging in through the door. Alcohol as never been a sweeter resort.

Chapter1 (v.1) - When the ice breaks

Author Chapter Note

A girl´s life will take a turn for either better or worse when an odd merchant makes a stop at Evercry.

Chapter Content - ver.1

Submitted: April 28, 2017

Reads: 34

A A A | A A A

Chapter Content - ver.1

Submitted: April 28, 2017

A A A

A A A

I

It was cloudy that, nearly every day was as such on Evercry. The air was polluted with contamination and the dark clouds averted heavy raining. Sometimes it was hard to be entirely sure whether if it was day or noon. The year was coming to its end and for that reason the streets were filled with a mixture of tradition and vigour, fear and joy… the Executions of Welcoming! Pyres were being built, pikes got sharpened and beheading blocks and guillotines got placed in the centre of plazas. Such celebration took place in almost all of the cities and villages in Tetrica, and it implied sacrificing dozens of inhabitants to please and appease with the High God and the Under God; Cadeos and Aunes, the gods preached by the White Order, the religious order of major impact on Tetrica and Ellegantia.

There were few ways to earn a decent amount of money in Evercry, most jobs implied demeaning labours with despicable conditions. Most of the kids –for life was so harsh in Tetrica that even children had to work –were sent to work to the local farms that belonged to the King. Others had to work at the factory or in the food processing plant.

The most important place in the whole city, apart from the King´s representative house, was the main plaza because there laid the clock tower and it had something that could never miss, something every city needed.

‘Look at that, Sven my boy,’ said a father to his son as they passed by the clock tower. Sven, sitting atop his father´s shoulders looked up to the tower, ‘the dusk clock is still far from reaching the six and even more from the nine.’

‘What does that mean, daddy?’ Asked Sven. ‘What is a ?dus clock?, daddy?’

‘Don´t be silly, my boy,’ said his father with a smile. ‘The dusk clock indicates that, came noon, we must return to our homes for God is leaving the world and at night we must shelter for the Under God, King and Maker of all demons.’

Not too far from the plaza was the food processing plant and at 3 o´clock the whistle sounded and echoed throughout half of the city, which meant that the workers –mostly kids –were ending their shifts. They left in a stream of tiredness and pain as their bones cracked and coughed for the smoked they had inhaled.

‘I want to die…’ complained a boy among the stream of exhausted children. His clothes were dirty with soot and grime and his face stained with coal and oil. ‘I cannot wait to get home and­—­

‘¿Sleep?’ Interrupted a girl as she reached him from his left. She was smiling and didn´t look tired in the smallest.

‘Die!’ He screamed and corrected her as his voiced echoed. He raised his dark brown head and looked at his side over the girl. ‘Although sleeping would be nice, too.’

‘Don´t be such a gloomy face!’ She nagged him with her perky attitude and big blue eyes. She laughed and jumped in joy as the cold wind dragged the moist and light mist hovering over the water stream under the wooden bridge they were walking on. ‘You could smile every once in a while. That would make you feel better’­

‘Tanya,’ he sighed and stopped right there on a wobbling plank. She stopped shortly after and looked at him with not-so-discrete smile to which he responded by closing his dark blue eyes in a sign of bother ‘we have just ended a nine hours shift. Nine hours!’

‘Way too gloomy…’

They stood there. Igor sighed every so often as he waited for Tanya to keep going and the rest of the children passed by them. They talked for a few minutes as the air slowly got slightly colder. Then, as Igor thought about how warm his tattered bed seemed, Tanya jumped ahead and landed in front of him with a broad smile on her face.

‘I don´t get you!’ He broke off finally with anger on his face and waving his arms, ‘How can you be so… like that all day every single day?

‘That´s easy.’

‘That´s not an answer,’ he replied. But, then something changed. Her smiled grew bigger so he could see her white teeth and azure eyes opening up. Igor followed with his sight and saw someone walking through groups of kids, it was older than them and not too taller. He had a stained apron on his right hand and waving at them with the other. He was smiling, too. ‘Ah, that´s it.’

The man got there and just as his arms opened up towards Tanya she jumped at him and put her arms around his neck. He laughed and pulled her up as he spun over and over with her hanging from him.

‘I get it, I get it!’ Yelled Igor when her feet nearly hit him as she circled, ‘He soothes the pain, the… world. Now, ‘he looked at them smiling at each other and hugging tight, ‘could you make way and leave some space between you?’

‘How´s life treating you, Igor?’ Asked the newly arrived with a smile. They had met before and Dimitri had a certain gift to drive him mad. ‘Still seeing the glass half broken?’ He kept his arm around his sister´s shoulders and scrubbed Igor´s brown hair, releasing a slight amount of ashes and soot to the air.

‘Would you cut it!?’ He screamed annoyed as he slapped away Dimitri´s hand. ‘You and your sister are such a bother…’

‘Hush it,’ demanded the older one with an annoying smile as he turned to his sister. ‘And for you… I´ve got something. Cover your eyes.’

She jumped in joy and covered her eyes as she giggled. Igor sighed yet again and tapped repeatedly on the wobbling plank with his right foot. Tanya laughed nervously and heard his brother making a drum-like sound with his mouth.

‘Open up, now!’

And there it was; slightly decoloured and the top right corned folded over. Her eyes overflowed with tears of joy and melancholy and held tight the photograph with love as the very tears rolled over her cheeks. Igor sighed once again and stretched out just before Dimitri punched him on the left ribs.

‘Bastard…’ He coughed as he hunched over.

‘Do you like it?’ Asked Dimitri. He walked up and hugged her by the back. A starling flew by and landed on the branch of a withered tree. It creaked and the small bird uttered a subtle chirp just before an ouzel flew its way up to the other winged creature and joined it in its melody. ‘I knew you would,’ he pumped up his chest and exhaled in relief as she kept staring deeply at the ones pictured in the photograph. ‘See? That Father… Mother was lovely, as always… and there´s us. I remember I was angry that day because she had me put on the “fancy clothes” we had. I hated that.’

‘It´s beautiful.’

II

Their house was nothing if not the most pathetic excuse of shelter made from pinewood and cedar brought from the woods near Dead Cliff. They stopped for groceries on their way, barely managing to get the essentials with their low funds. They bade Igor goodbye and passed through the wooden threshold. The hinges grinded as the door got slowly opened by the efforts of Dimitri. The wind blew strong and twisted the moth-eaten curtains just as the older brother tried to close the door without it falling over him.

‘This house is falling apart,’ he said once he finally managed to shut the door. He put on the lock although it was nearly useless for it fell with barely a push, ‘I guess I could get the tools from the smithy and… try to work a miracle.’ He walked to the living room and threw a wooden log into the fireplace and tried for over twenty minutes before a small ember took place in the wood until he finally let himself fell over a dusty couch. ‘It´s a fact, now I´m sure,’ he said as his legs and rear sunk on the dusty and puffed cushion, ‘this place is a deadly trap.’

Tanya kept listed at him from the kitchen as she placed the few groceries on the cupboard. She laughed as she knew about his brothers efforts to make a joke out of everything. She drew her index finger over the edge of a knife and realized it was way too dull. She took a whetstone out from one of the kitchen´s cabinets and started sharpening the blade.

‘How curious,’ she mumbled after a few minutes. She had raised the knife to see how sharp it was, but right there, as she saw past it and through the window in the kitchen, the wind blew and couldn´t hear the swallow that used to have a nest on the branches. Instead, there was a different bird, ‘where´s the swallow? I liked that swallow.’

‘You´re right,’ added Dimitri as he fought his way up and out of the cursed cushion, ‘I didn´t see it this morning, too.’ He took a hardy apple and a bite it, ‘Instead… we have a… crow?’ He poked his head out through the window and caught a closer look at the bird.

It stood there, staring at them with its big black eyes as the Moon glowed bright up in the sky and reflected on its lustrous feathers. It beat its wings and squawked loud. The brothers relented and the crow took off amidst the stormy wind.

‘Dumb bird…’ Dimitri sighed and took another bite off the apple. ‘I can´t wait to leave this city. Or at least drink at the pub.’

‘As long as you stay indoors after dusk…’

‘You do realize that the speech about the night and dark is just a simple tale, right? I mean… It´s just night!’ He replied as he shrunk his shoulders. ‘It´s simple nonsense.’

‘That´s not what the stories mom and dad used to tell you at night said.’

The dinner was slow and had nearly nothing. Tanya made borsch and they went to bed with at least something in their stomachs. Just before sleeping, Dimitri would take one of the old, dusty books from his father´s desk and read it to his little sister. They laughed and laughed as he told her about his few memories with their parents. The next morning was just about the same except that it grew greyer and depressing as the hours went by. Their shifts started early –they always did –and had to go through half the city to get there. However, as soon as they set one foot outside of their house they felt a sudden change, a growing awkwardness and a shadow of pursuit chasing them after every corner, in every hut and any place at any time. They would look over their shoulders every so often and notice new and unknown faces all over the city.

‘Who are they?’ Asked Tanya as she saw a group of dark skinned men chatting in front of a caravan of bulls-pulled wagons. They had their heads wrapped in odd coloured fabrics and scimitars hanged from their leather belts. ‘I guess they´re not from around.’

And she was right. The foreign had come all over from the kingdom of Ephimera, from the land of the ever-changing deserts where only one city stands: Eternal City. They had brought silks so soft that feathers were rough in comparison, vases filled with sands of so many colours and scents that were like a flower-bed if you closed your eyes, trinkets so odd that almost no one knew what they were meant to do. Her eyes glanced over their wares as they passed by and more than once she felt inclined to spend her last roubles on a small music box. Then, she saw and heard something that her brother could barely perceive. It was like a wagon, but its size was of about a fourth part of a normal one and whatever was pulling it was absolutely no bull.

‘Brother?’ She said once they had went through what seemed to be a bazaar. She discretely looked back and made sure the “wagon” was still there, away from all those merchants. Dimitri looked at her and Igor, lost in thoughts, gently rammed against her back. ‘Do you mind if we part here?’

‘What?’

‘Yes. I mean,’ she licked her lips and smiled naively as she closed her eyes, ‘I forgot I had to check something at the butchery. Yes, that.’

‘Really?’ He replied with a smiled. He shrugged it over and sighed. ‘I guess a woman´s a woman even at 15—

‘Pretty please?’

‘Yeah, Dimitri,’ intervened Igor with an unusual high spirit, ‘don´t be such a drag.’

‘Fine. You,’ he pointed at the youngest of them all, ‘respect your elders and shut up. And you,’ Dimitri leaned on her sister and kissed on the forehead before turning her towards the merchants, ‘make sure not to spend your savings at once, all right?’ He saw them go off and lose themselves amongst the crowd. ‘And don´t delay too much.’

Where was it? The wagon was simply gone, lost among the shambling buildings and houses. They asked around, but no one could tell its whereabouts. Gone like a dream come morning. Then, as they resigned to the idea of losing such odd-looking merchant, Igor caught sight and heard a melody too unusual to spare.

‘You´re seeing that, too, right?’

It was riding through the barely illuminated alley, whistling out of tune and staggering as it drove. Igor stood at the entrance to the alley and tried not to laugh as Tanya got closer. They decided to follow the odd wagon not long after.

‘Tanya, we´ll be late for work if we don´t hurry,’ mumbled Igor as he kept following her. She patted him on the shoulder and gave him a “stop whining” look that she always used. ‘Fine. But I hope we find something damn good in that wagon.’

‘Oh, please. It´s right there.’

‘Behind the old houses. FAR away from the rest of the merchants.’ Added Igor with in a sarcastic tone. ‘Right. There´s no way anything could go wrong.’ 

‘It´s just around the—

Their eyes got wide open as they saw… it. Their nostrils filled with the scent of old pages, odd and various herbs, their eyes feasted and marvelled as stones shone under the scarce light entering the alley. However, what called their attention the most was the one handling the merchandise.

‘What on earth is that?’

It was small and fast, moving its apparently small legs under that dark-brown robe. It went from one point to the other, carrying different wares on its back while “giggling” and speaking in an incomprehensible language, or at least that´s what it seemed to them. It pulled out lots of wares and placed them on wooden boxes and clay bricks. The wagon had gotten bigger out of the nowhere.

‘Come on, let´s have a look!’

‘What? No!’ Howled Igor. He held a pipe thigh and said he wouldn´t leave.

‘Don´t be such a kitten!’ She said hushed tones just before jumping out of the corner and into the alley. ‘Greetings!’

The character jumped out of surprise and dropped a set of cylinders and a silver plate. It screeched and fell on the ground and took shelter behind a couple of bricks.

‘Holy Sun!’ She exclaimed. Tanya ran out of her hiding with an expression of genuine concern to the bricks amongst other wares. ‘I´m so… sorry?’ It was empty.

‘Tanya, we must go!’

The wagon opened with a hushed ‘bang’. The left side of wagon unfolded like a circus’s tent just as serpentines of coloured paper popped out of the wagon´s sides and rained over Tanya. A group of musical instruments —trumpets, cymbals, drums and cornets —began to play just like, again, a circus. The younglings startled, Igor nearly ripped the ill-attached pipe off the wall. Tanya took a step back, but fell because of the bricks and the amaze.

‘Welcome, lady and… gentleman!’ It screamed with a sharp voice as he raised from the suddenly large wagon. ‘Welcome be to Uglu´s Emporium of Really Awesome Stuff!’ Igor ran out of his hiding spot and aided Tanya while the so-called “Uglu” grabbed a bunch serpentines and threw them over them. ‘Now open-open for business!’ Uglu left the serpentines and grabbed a couple of cymbals and started banging them together as if he was in a parade.

Would you please shut up!?’ Demanded a melodious voice from the interior of the wagon. ‘You´re plain nasty at playing instruments and singing!’ Uglu hesitantly stopped, then he banged them together once again one more time. ‘You have an awful taste for music… Hell! Stop that infernal band, you´re scaring the clients!’

‘Oh, shut-shut,’ replied Uglu as the instruments stopped playing instantly and returned to their default position. He was obviously upset and angry at the voice. ‘You wouldn´t know-know good music, even if it spat-spat on your face.’ The character turned away from the interior of the wagon.

I really can´t understand what´s happening in this freak-show,’ thought Igor.

Tanya, on the other hand, was astonished and marvelled. She raised up and walked to Uglu as he kept fighting with the interior of the wagon.

‘To the Abyss with you!’ He yelled with his angry fists waving at his sides. He grabbed a boxful of shiny trinkets and kept mumbling, ‘Cursed-cursed, double curse be the day when I found you! Oh, hellos and hi-hi´s, young lady,’ greeted her Uglu with a different tone, now rather happy. Tanya wished to look at his face but it was covered with a shroud and only managed to look at a couple of light-red eyes at the bottom of the shroud. ‘Would you please answer-answer a question? Did you like-like the show?’

‘Well, I’ she still tried to look at his face, ‘yes. I liked it.’

Uglu left the box atop another brick, ‘On your face!’ He screamed in joy as he pointed at the wagon, ‘on your crystal face!’

She´s a woman, she lies!’ The voice replied with a soft yet harsh voice. ‘We lie. It´s in the nature of humans. Especially in women.’

‘No. The client is always right-right.’ Said Ugly with happiness. ‘Anyhow, is there something you like-like?’

‘Tanya, we really ought to get going.’

‘My friend´s right, Uglu, Sir,’ replied Tanya to his gentle question.

Uglu giggled as he went to his wagon and lost himself in that vast amount of treasures. Igor tried to get Tanya to leave, but somehow she convinced him that they should bid farewell to Uglu properly. Then they heard him returning, moving trinkets and toys in his small wake. He was carrying something in his arms that seemed to double his size.

‘Do not worry-worry about time,’ he said. He placed what he was carrying just outside the wagon; it was a clock. It was made out of silver and iron. It wasn´t ticking, it was just standing still with the hands pointing at the 12. He move the minute hand to the 6 and moved the pendulum. It started ticking away, ‘we have plenty of it.’

Taken by the curiosity and a repeating “to hell with it, it´s almost New Year” in their heads, they decided to stay with Uglu for a little longer. He giggled and kept placing his wares in “order”.

Something caught Igor´s attention, a structure of about his size that was covered with a sheet black as coal.

‘Do not uncover-uncover!’ Howled Uglu when he saw the kid reaching for the blanket.

‘What´s beneath it?’

‘Mirror.’

‘A mirror?’

‘Yes. Mirror. Bad mirror, accursed mirror.’

‘I´m the client, right?’ He asked with an insolent tone as he grabbed the sheet. ‘So, I am always right. So I´ll uncover this mirror. After all, I do not know what a mirror is.’

For Tanya that would be a new experience as well, she had never seen one and wondered what it would be. She encouraged her friend to reveal what laid beneath the sheet. Uglu screeched as the kid revealed the mirror and sighed.

‘What sort of magic is this? It´s like the water,’ he whispered astonished as the sheet slowly and smoothly slipped from his grip.

‘Like the crystal in a window.’

The silver linings on the borders called their attention, but the smooth and reflecting surface was what called them the most. It had a note attached ‘Do not touch-touch!’ The silver metal was twisted and contorted into the shape of different kinds of flowers on the edges and from them emanated a scent unlike anything they had smelled, roses, lilac, gooseberries, tulips and other scents they had never smelled before and which origins they could only imagine. They toyed with it a bit, moving and simulating a march, marvelled as their reflections imitated their actions.

‘Yes, cover it, now, quickly,’ said Uglu as he tried to throw the sheet over the mirror, but Igor was stepping on one corner. ‘Bad mirror. Sad mirror.’

‘Why? This is amazing!’ Roared Igor with a broad smile.

Yes it is!’ Replied his reflection before laughing unkindly.

‘By the Depth…’

Both of the kids jumped out in scare and surprise. Igor tripped on the sheet and fell on the ground as their reflections laughed mockingly, and they and the whole background melt down into a hazy mixture that, seconds later, shaped up into a noble woman.

You should´ve seen your faces!’ She exclaimed as she toyed with a lock of her silver hair. She let go of her hair and picked two corners of her black dress. Her eyes were green and bright, almost like venomous and nearly hypnotic. Her smile was ominous and evil and she let her teeth show as she bowed.

Tanya looked around as Igor´s face recovered its colour and realized that all the mirrors were cloaked with a black sheet, ‘it must be a trick!’ She got up on her feet quickly and looked at the back of the mirror just to make sure there was no one spending a prank on them. She looked on the side and saw Igor looking around, too, making sure there was no one behind them playing them.

Are you done looking?’ Asked the Lady in the Mirror. ‘Because I would be thrilled if you returned to my front. It´s awfully irreverent to inspect me like that!’

‘What are you?’ Asked Igor with surprise and astonishment. The lady pulled out fashioned hand-fan from one of the folds in her dress and looked away with signs of hassle in her face. ‘I asked you a question!’ But the lady wouldn´t answer, not a single word. Why? They didn´t know, she just kept silent and didn´t even look at them for the rest of their stay.

‘Don´t bother-bother with her,’ added Uglu after short moments of awkward silence. He finally got Igor to take off his foot from the sheet and covered the mirror with a sigh of relief. ‘She´s just moody-moody. Crazy humans,’ he stammered as he walked away with his fast and short steps, ‘you can never know-know what´s with them.

‘Where did you get that? Her? It?’ Questioned Igor.

‘Who do you think-think you´re talking to?’ He replied. He placed his small fists on his hips and awaited for an answer, there was none. ‘Uglu! Knower of the Unknown! Listener of Whispers! Cook of Forbidden Recipes! I´ve travelled through nine realms. Nine!’

‘There are only six realms,’ corrected Igor in hushed tones.

‘That you know…’ Replied Uglu with gladness. ‘I got it thanks to some old friends of mine. Good days were those. It costed me a fortune and lost goods worthy of a king´s realm, but still… I got a mirror.’ He sighed in pain when he saw Igor´s footprint on the sheet. ‘Are you thinking about buying-buying anything?’ 

‘I don´t know, really,’ replied Tanya just as Igor quickly stepped back and turned his pockets inside-out, ‘I don´t have much money. I don´t think I can buy you anything.’

They started to walk away slowly. Igor was relieved for thinking about what could have been lurking in his wagon made him shudder, but at the same time Tanya felt slightly sad.

‘Wait-wait!’ Said Uglu as soon as Tanya shrugged. It´s hard to determine if the small character was moved by sadness or a mere pulsation of tenderness. Tanya turned almost instantly and ran back to the odd merchant. ‘Do you know-know what I like more than a shiny rouble?’ Tanya nodded in negation with a smile, ‘Trade-trade! Let us trade-trade!’

‘Trade? Trade!’ She exclaimed with an ever bigger smile. ‘But… I have nothing of value on me. And my house has nothing valuable in it, too.’

‘Do not fret-fret! I´m sure-sure we can make a deal-deal,’ he assured quickly. He took her by the hand and guided her closed to the wagon. ‘What do you like better? Books? Jewellery? Just say it, my wagon´s bound-bound to have something you like.’

‘I would love a book.’ She replied with a faint smile. ‘It´s sad to know how to read and have nothing to read but signs and announcements.’

‘Aha!’ Exclaimed Uglu. He bolted into his mysterious wagon and minutes later he came out pushing a metallic chest with a lot of effort. ‘You would be surprised of how many books I have. Barely anyone buys them! Poor fellows… all of them waiting to tell their stories. Only Philosophers, writers, Alchemists and Arcanas buy them. Don´t get me wrong-wrong. They buy in large quantities, but they are harder to find every day.’

‘Oh, I want that one!’ She stretched out her arm for a book.

Uglu moved quickly. He jumped and grabbed her arm as if it was the branch of a tree and had it lowered just as fangs and teeth grew out of the chest´s edges and snapped shut. Tanya watched terrified as she moved her fingers and rubbed her hand, making sure all of them were in their due place.

‘Bad Grob! Bad Grob!’ Said Uglu slapping on the chest´s top with his wrapped hand, ‘how many times have I told-told you not to eat the costumers!’ Grob growled.

‘Is everything here alive!?’ Snapped Igor.

‘Forgive Grob,’ Uglu said while petting the chest, ‘he´s just too zealous-zealous with his books. Anyway, let´s make a deal-deal, yes? The books Grob guards are my cheapest—

Grob snapped his “jaws” at him.

‘Well, it´s true, so don´t get moody-moody at me,’ he sighed and shrugged. ‘Are you interested in short-term payments? Six days is all it will take you to pay then you can pick the book you want from his treasure.’

‘What would I have to do?’ Asked Tanya.

‘It´s getting late, Tanya, we—’

‘Hush, hush! Shut it or Grob will have you for supper!’ Grob jumped its way towards Igor as he snapped his jaws and made him back off, although Grob kept chasing him around the Emporium. ‘This is the deal. Each book inside-inside Grob costs 6 roubles, or six… anything.  So, since you can´t pay it in roubles, you must fetch me six-six things. Sounds fair? Each day you must bring me one of those six things before six o´clock. Good deal-deal, yes?’

‘Yes, it is!’ Howled Tanya with excitement. ‘What do you want for tomorrow, then?’

‘First, I want something from the place you work. A stone, a screw. Anything.’ He was just about to say something else when the clock made a loud and final ‘tac’. Uglu turned around and looked at the silvery device. ‘Oh, by the Abyss. Your time is up-up. Go or you´ll be late-late for work.’

Uglu urged them to leave with caring just after giving them six weird-looking jelly cubes that tasted like berries. Just as they rushed out of the alley and into the mob for they feared they were already late for work, they ran into Dimitri.

‘Igor, what in the bloody hell!?’ He cursed after almost falling onto the ground. ‘What are you doing here? I thought you were looking at the bazaar.’

Igor and Tanya looked at each other with puzzled looks on their faces.

‘But…’ Said Igor finally after nearly a minute of silence between them. The merchants around them kept announcing their wares aloud and winnowing the scents of spices and dusts on the wind, ‘we were in there for, like, an eternity. An hour, at least!’

‘Very funny, dirt-face,’ said Dimitri quite upset. Tanya looked around and realized that the sun had barely moved and all the merchants and by-passers were in almost the same place when they went into the ally, ‘so you just went in and out of the bazaar? Okay. Now, off to work!’

Dimitri walked them all the way to the factory for he knew that Mr. Peter would just laugh at his small displeasure.

III

Perhaps… it was a hallucination!’ Thought Igor. The shovel in his hand seemed to move on its own. The coal shone hot red into the furnace, but neither the heat nor the smell bothered him, he was way too busy thinking about Uglu´s alley. ‘Yes, it must be that…’

‘You´re thinking about it, too, right?’ Tanya asked him as she placed a five-pound meat piece on the carrying band. Usually, they would await until the place was deserted, but amongst the sound of the machinery clanging and banging, vapour ovens whistling and speakers ordering about, their voices couldn´t be heard. ‘It was amazing, right? I don´t know how most of his wares work! We ought to return tomorrow and—

‘No way!’ Exclaimed Igor at the same time his oven whistled with vapour. ‘That guy might be a maniac, you saw that damned chest and the mirror!’

‘Oh, I bet you WERE looking at the lady in the mirror…’ Babbled Tanya with a sigh. ‘Either way, I must get something for Uglu. A coal will work, right?’ She dragged a piece of coal under her shoe for a while and waited for Igor to turn. ‘Now, let´s wait for a stroll through the plaza…’

For six days Tanya was at the will of Uglu´s mundane requests; ‘something from the place you work, something from the place you sleep, water from city that cries, a leaf from a tree that lives, something from anything that flies… and—‘

‘A feather!’ Cried Uglu as he took it hastily. Tanya thought he was angry but was actually happy. He jumped and turned at the same time. He took a small metallic box and placed the black feather in it with the rest of the items. Then he went into his wagon and came back with a small test tube. ‘Where did you get the feather?’

Tanya shuddered slightly when she saw the test tube. She stuttered, ‘From a raven,’ she said finally as the merchant cleaned the inner of the tube with an end of his robe, ‘a raven that has been living in a tree close to my house.’

‘A raven?’ Wondered Uglu stopping momently his cleaning duty. ‘Few have seen ravens in this city.’ He looked at the box for a moment and sighed as he scratched his head over the hood, ‘At least the next request is really close.’

‘Really!?’ She was bursting with excitement. ‘Tell me now, at once!’

Uglu chuckled for a bit and took out a small knife, ‘a drop of blood.’

The wind blew strong along that alley. The silver clock kept ticking and from the sky fell the first snowflake of the season. The girl looked up and swallowed some saliva.

‘Fine,’ she finally said after near half a minute of silence, ‘give me a needle or something sharp.’

‘What?’ Asked Uglu astonished, ‘Just like that? No questions or denying? No fighting?’ Uglu questioned. Tanya nodded, ‘I could be tricking you into a deadly trap, or into marrying me… or anything!’

‘It´s just a drop of blood, Uglu.’ She said with a smile just as she took the knife off his small hand. ‘A drop and nothing else. Besides, you wouldn´t hurt me, right? You´re one of the few good guys left in the world, I can tell.’

A strong and lasting wave of heat moved through Uglu´s innards just as he smiled under his hood. His hand was shaking and his heart was beating strongly just as she was taking the knife.

‘You are a good friend, Uglu,’ added Tanya while pricking her index finger and letting a few drops slide into the tube, ‘I like you no matter what the others say.’

‘What the others say?’ She had broken the tender moment, ‘What on blazes are others saying? It was that Igor kid, right?’

‘Don´t worry about that, Uglu,’ Tanya giggled as she returned him the vial and he placed it into the box. ‘It´s just people, after all.’

He smiled yet again, she couldn´t see it but she knew it. The small man bowed deeply and left for the interior of the wagon leaving Tanya puzzled. He returned few moments later pushing Grob into the open. He stood behind the chest and told him to open up, but since it didn´t obey he spurred him into order. The fanged hood opened up and revealed its treasure. Tanya gasped as her eyes gleamed with happiness and delighted over the tons of book inside Grob, it seemed it didn´t have bottom.

‘I don´t know which to pick!’

And then something happened. From the interior of the chest something began to move, a sound came as if hundreds of books began to arrange themselves. It was coming closer and closer, slow and steady. And there it was, a book of crimson, red paste laid before her on a wide and sticky tongue.

‘Uglu, what is going on?’ She wondered.

‘He likes you!’ Uglu exclaimed. ‘It´s one of my most expensive books. I wonder how he got it.’

The girl retrieved the book and the merchant cleaned the scares saliva on its paste. On its cover it said the Book of all the stories that would ever be. She held the book open and sighed. It was slim and the cover was faintly decoloured. Tanya, slightly disappointed, looked at him. ‘It’s blank,’ she said with annoyance in her voice, ‘it´s a notebook, not a book.’

‘Of course it´s blank!’ He replied, waved his hands and petted Grob nicely. ‘It´s one of the most valuable books there could exist!’

She stood silent for a while. The clock kept ticking back as the minute hand went its way. They had hours to spare if they wished.

‘I get it!’ She said aloud finally. ‘That´s the point, right?’ Uglu pulled two chairs from the interior of the wagon, then a small tea table and a weird glass device she had never –just like the rest of his wares –seen. She took a seat and held the book open on the table. ‘That´s why it´s so valuable! It´s not what it has but what it will have, yes? Stories and tales, songs and poems.’ She smiled and held Uglu´s hands over the table around the device, ‘That´s so romantic!’

‘That´s nonsense,’ he broke off finally, killing her romantic thought. ‘Look at the book.’

She looked down and realized the book was, in fact, written. The last journey of the last ship said on the first page. She closed the cover on it with haste and her smile got broader. ‘That´s amazing!’ She exclaimed. ‘I´ve always wanted to read that one!’

However, as soon as she opened it up again, Tanya realized the story was gone.

It´s blank.’

She further inspected the book with awful interest. The pages were yellowish, just like the older books, and could swear it was thicker when it had the other tittle in it.

‘Do you wish to know why it is so valuable?’ Asked Uglu with a serious, dread voice. ‘I can tell you the story if you desire.’

‘Please do so,’ she said as she made herself comfortable in the chair. The glass device, resembling an oil lamp, then lighted up. Small embers burned inside, floating on the air, dancing in front of them.

It was a long time ago, in a land long since forgotten. A girl lived there, amongst the trees and from her they wished to never part. One day, however, someone wished something different.

‘A book,’ she said, playing with a tuff of hair, ‘A book is what I wish for my birthday.’

‘A book?’ The Tree asked, ‘For that one would have to die. Why do you want one? Are you already bored from us?’

‘I just want one. Something to read, something to hold. A story to heed.’

‘That, my dear,’ intervened another tree, a Birch, with the voice of the oldest lady, ‘is our job. Hundreds of thousands of tales we know. All of them, in fact. The ones that were, the ones that are and even those that will be. We know them all.’

‘Then tell me those,’ the girl said as her cheeks turned red. ‘Fill my head with them so I can picture them as I sleep tonight.’

‘We can´t,’ said another one, a Willow. ‘You are too young for them.’

‘Today I turned eleven,’ she screamed. ‘And my wish is a book.’

‘Fine!’ Roared an Oak, ‘A book you shall have!’ He said with a voice so strong and loud that even the wildest animals laid down. ‘But not today, ephemeral one. In five years, hear me well, the best of all books you shall have and all the stories will be at your hands. Is that agreed? Until then, you must wait.’

And for five years she awaited. She ran and played with every single creature in that vast and primeval forest. But when she woke up on her sixteenth birthday… all the trees were gone and on a barren and dry land she was upon. And at her side it was, the book of all the stories that would ever be.”

‘Blazing hell!’ She said after a minute of silence, ‘Was that real?’ She asked holding thigh the book close to her chest.

‘I do not know-know,’ replied Uglu with a giggle. ‘That´s why the book itself is so valuable. It has all the stories inside, you just don´t know which one will be shown.’

Tanya looked around, she saw Grob laying on the ground, snoring. The lamp with the floating embers in front of her, even birds of nothing else than bone chirping and singing atop of a perch, an invisible creature growling inside a silver cage and a robed, four-legged creature resting at the front of the wagon.

‘What is all of this, Uglu?’ Her eyes shone over the sight of the embers with delight in them, ‘Is this magic? Is this sorcery? Perhaps a miracle?’

‘My beloved Tanya,’ answered Uglu, ‘I call it “the world”. These are but some trinkets I have gathered over the years, things that were found on my way as I roamed the realms while looking for nothing but my own fortune. Stories, that´s how it started for me. An old man telling tales while I was hiding away on the cup of an oak, that´s all it took.’

‘How I envy you,’ she confessed after a moment, ‘I really do, Uglu. You travel around the wilds and gather odds and ends, tales and stories,’ as she kept on, Uglu grew sadder, ‘I desire to travel, too. Leave this city, its walls and its streets. Take my brother and never look back.’

‘You say that because you don´t know-know how it is outside,’ replied the merchant slowly. ‘Evercry is one of the safest-safest cities in all of Tetrica. Away-away from most of the realm… You are lucky it´s that way. Do me a favour-favour, my dearest child, and never leave this harrowed place. ‘

‘Safe city?’ She returned the question. ‘We can´t venture outside out houses past dusk.’

Upset, Tanya stood up with her book held thigh. She bowed quickly and left the alley in storming rage.

‘That´s for your own good.’ He mumbled. ‘I hope the rest of the realm stays away of this city. I hope that dreadful guardian angel stays put.’

She is ma-ad…’ Sang the melodious voice of the lady in the mirror from the interior of the wagon.

‘Shut up, Lucy!’

IV

She couldn´t make herself comfortable in the bed, she didn´t have a pinch of sleep in her. The sheets were oddly smooth and not even that made her feel good enough. His brother was dead asleep and the crow had moved itself to the tree outside her window. The moonlight entered nicely through the window opposite to her bed, blueish and silver, the most beautiful light she had ever seen.

I shouldn´t have stormed out like that,’ Tanya thought as she took the book from under her pillow and got out of the bed. ‘He has been one of the nicest persons I have ever met and I just… no. I´ll go and apologize to him tomorrow after work.’

She stood under the light and opened the book.

‘”A guide to the nobles. Manners and customs of the high breed.” Nobles? I didn´t know we had nobles in this place…’ She mumbled while keeping her brother in mind.

It was her first, actual book of ‘choice’ and spent most of the ice-cold night reading it under the safeguard of the moon. However, she could not forget how disrespectful it was to the merchant and wished to see him at once, but each time she thought about leaving the house she would doze off and go back to her reading, as if under a spell. ‘Everything will be fixed tomorrow,’ she repeated for herself every couple of minutes.

V

The whistle blew loud after her shift was over. She walked out alongside Igor, just like always. Her brother was not outside, he was missing.

‘Tanya!’ Shouted male voice over the mob of children just as she waited for her brother to turn up. Tanya and Igor turned.

‘Alfred,’ she acknowledged him, the son of the blacksmith, ‘what are you doing here? Where´s my brother?’

‘Father allowed him to leave early,’ said Alfred. His breath stunk like chimney and made them back one step, ‘he told me to give you this.’

The boy searched in one of the pockets of his apron and took out a small paper and handed it over to Tanya.

‘”My dearest sister”’, she began, faking Dimitri´s voice, ‘”I left early and will be busy for some time. But don´t get mad! I got Ivan, the bartender at the Ale´s den, to give us a free meal. You´re welcome, thank you. I´ll wait for you there at—‘‘

The paper was ripped from her grasp by a suddenly strong wind.

‘Damn it!’ She cursed in anger.

The wind carried the paper not too far away, merely over the apparently thick ice covering the water stream. She sighed as her friends chuckled, but they fell silent as soon as they saw her walking towards the edge of the ice.

‘Hold it, Tanya!’ Yelled Igor as soon as she set her right foot over the ice.

‘It´s thick, Igor. See?’ She jumped over the ice and showed it was rather resistant. ‘It´s going to be peachy. It´s over there, I´ll be fine.’

She could feel the water streaming at tremendous speed under her, underneath the ice, although she didn´t care for that. The wind dragged the paper further away from her every time she was close to grab it until, when she looked back, she realized she was standing right at the centre of the frozen river. She took the paper.

Turn back right, bloody now!’

And she was about to when she heard something coming from further down the river, making its way through the ice to her. And there, at the distance and nearly indiscernible, a shape, a human shape, was standing leaning over the ice. The sound grew closer and louder.

Tanya!’

‘It… It cannot be…’ Stammered Alfred.

‘Tanya… No!’ Igor fell to his knees.

The mob of children gathered around them as they all witnessed her sinking amongst water and ice. Tanya, just like that, was gone. From the eyes of her friend tears emerged and rolled down his cheeks.

‘Igor, do you want me to tell him?’

‘No,’ he replied. His eyes were red after crying in silence for about twenty minutes, ‘I´ll tell him. Just… give me a minute.’

 


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