The Last Librarian
by Jeremy E. Brown
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
Tancred remained kneeling for some time. His shadow slowly turned around him as the day waned. The village had left him alone, but he knew it was just an attempt to give him space; a wasted gesture. By sundown, he planned to be long on his way. At some point, he found his feet and made his way to what remained of the library alone. There was just one thing he needed before he left.
“Hold on, I’m just going to see if anything’s left. I’ll catch up to you,” a voice called from outside. It was young and carried a note of tenderness to it. Tancred turned to see Jillian, the town’s only teacher entering the library, stepping gingerly over the debris.
She stopped short when she saw Tancred standing over the remaining books discarded like everyday trash amidst overturned desks and tables. “Oh, Tancred.” He averted his eyes before they met hers. “I’m sorry for intruding,” she continued. The silence ripped through the space between them when he did not respond.
“I’m sorry about your library,” she offered after a time.
“Me too,” he muttered and granted her a quick glance. “What’s done is done.” He tromped determinedly through the tattered piles towards a shelf fixed to the wall, and shoved the few remaining books out of the way until he pushed down near the middle. A “click” followed and a small panel rose to reveal a bundle wrapped in cloth. Tancred sighed in heavy relief.
“Those books... what are they?” Jillian asked quietly.
Tancred ignored her for a moment, staring at his wife’s favorite books as he unwrapped them, remembering her talk about them, like they were the only hope for this world. Their titles, The Rights of Man and The Republic, bore back into his eyes and into his soul. Now, he would carry the planetary weight of their unshared message like a soldier bearing scars.
Tancred debated answering Jillian. Finally, he sighed heavily and replied, “Just a dream.”
“Oh,” was all she said with an accompanying sigh. Not long after, she asked, “Where is Ashland?”
He offered her a dismissive glance. “I sent him away.”
“Why? He could help you clean this up.” She gestured towards the floor around her.
“He needs to be with his family,” he stated matter-of-factly. Realizing she could not figure out what he was doing, he said, “Besides, there’s no need. It’s over.”
“What do you mean?”
“The town is marked,” he pointed out, referring to the cross he saw in the road. “They’ve claimed it, and they will cleanse it if they so desire. They won’t hold a town meeting.”
“But, can’t you do something? You... you’ve had training. We can learn, like before. To protect ourselves.”
“Me?” Tancred, frustrated at her inability to see the gravity of the situation, stalked over towards a window. He jabbed an accusatory finger at the pile smoldering outside. “You see that? That is nothing! Yvette was just a warning; the beginning of what they’ll do now that they know you’re here and what you have.” Tancred saw her recoil at his outburst. He sighed and shook his head. “Look, you’ll all live if you do what they want,” he added as he gestured at the books around them. “Take my advice: let it go.”
“So, you’re just going to leave then?” she asked, genuine concern in her voice. He brought the bag to his shoulders, sighed, and turned to face her, adjusting for comfort.
“I can’t stay.”
“You don’t get it,” shaking his hands frantically beside his head, “they do more than just burn some books.” The last words sickened him so that he struggled to speak them.
“You’ve done so much for us; how can you just leave like this?” Jillian pleaded. He almost bought it too, but the smoking ash outside flooded his conscience, cementing his failure in his mind.
“I...” Tancred began, then sighed and stepped towards a pair of back doors. “I’m sorry. Burn all traces of this place after I leave.” He grabbed his bō and disappeared out the back exit.
* * *
Tancred headed for the front gate, stopping along the way for provisions he would need on what he expected to be a long trek. Once there, being alone in the storehouse didn’t prevent a stirring of guilt from squirming in before he grabbed an apple. It lasted only a moment, and he resumed gathering supplies, snagging a first-aid kit, antibiotics, and antihistamines.
Tancred adjusted the numbers on the inventory, and signed his name. Somehow the guilt of taking medical supplies unannounced was greater than that of food. Satisfied, he ducked back out.
Keeping out of sight, he slipped by a myriad of buildings on his right, including the school; it, too, had failed to escape the ire of the Inquisition. His path took him by the classroom, where he caught a glimpse of Jillian rummaging through the debris, bending over and picking up a globe, one he had found her. She pondered it for a moment before her shoulders started to shake, and he left with the image of her weeping, his thoughts pulled to their conversation in the library, and suddenly, the cold shame of arrogance pulsed through his veins.
It was the right decision, he told himself and forced his legs to keep moving. If it wasn’t the Inquisition, it would be one of the other fanatical groups, like the Servants of the Second Ark to the southeast, indoctrinating murderous idolaters, or the River Lords, preying on the fishing villages of the Great River. Even the Heritage Reclaimed, sweeping across the plains atop their painted horses. It did not matter. For all their zealotry, their grandstanding, in the end they all worshipped the same thing: power.
He passed through the final gate and stopped. Several villagers stood outside the walls, holding a vigil for Yvette. Tancred watched cautiously from behind the tattered gate and let out a sigh of relief that none of them saw him and that no one made an effort to take her down.
When the Inquisition returned, and if Yvette was gone, they would raze the town and, without any afterthought, move on to lunch. As he watched, a pang of sorrow struck him, realizing just how painful it must be for the townspeople to not be able to do so. He knew that feeling all too well.
The vigil ended, and the townsfolk proceeded back to the gate. Tancred slinked back and ducked behind a woodpile to wait for it to clear, and then slipped quietly out of town.
And Ashland stood before him.
Tancred yelped and reeled back. Rivers of adrenaline shocking his system into brief hesitation, enough to prevent him from strangling Ashland, who was startled out of his despondency.
“S-sorry, sir,” he sputtered.
Catching his breath and exhaling to avoid yelling, Tancred shook his head, partly at his own embarrassment at being caught off guard. “It’s all right, Ashland. What are you doing out here?”
Ashland hesitated, trying hard to keep his eyes from the cross bearing his decaying sister or to avoid showing his teacher humiliation. “We came out to honor Yvette be-before she starts to... fester.” His voice wavered as he tried to fight off the sobs. After a moment, he took a deep breath and made a show of standing up straighter, frowning when his eyes met with his teacher’s. “Are you going back out?”
Tancred cursed his slip, remembering his gear, and quickly replied, lying, “Yeah, I need more for the library.”
“Oh, all right,” Ashland said, pausing only for a moment before continuing. “I-I’ll just go get my gear. Give me a few minutes.” Surprise mixed with unfinished mourning in his voice as he started towards the gate.
Tancred reached out and put his hand softly onto Ashland’s shoulder, squeezing lightly. “No. You need to be with your family.” The student and the teacher stood silent for a moment, Ashland’s head cast down again, until the silence grew too long and his shoulders rose and fell with each sob, building in intensity until he fell apart.
Tancred glanced towards the forest that beckoned to him, but the tremor in the back of his mind stirred again and, no matter what he did, his student’s tears overrode his persistent flight response. Tancred sighed and pulled the grieving boy to him and hugged him, holding him until the tremors subsided and his guilt had reached its fill. “I’m sorry, Ashland. I’m so sorry. I didn’t want any of this.”
Ashland wiped his eyes with the heel of his palm, frowning at him. “What do you mean?” he asked.
“Nothing. I just... I’m sorry you had to see this.” His eyes glanced towards the cross.
“It’s not your fault, Tancred,” Ashland started with a sigh laden with grief and maturity. “I knew the danger of giving her books. I-I should have protected her.”
“Nonsense. This isn’t your fault.” Tancred held him at arm’s length. “You couldn’t control her. The best thing to do now would be move on, for her sake, so you can take care of your family. They need you.” Tancred stopped for a moment, weighing the following words. “The village needs you.” Ashland frowned again. “While I’m out, look after them.”
Ashland nodded, a faint glimmer of knowing in his eyes. Tancred turned towards the forest beneath the waning afternoon sky. “I need to go. The day’s ending and I need to get to shelter.”
“All right.” A half-smile broke through Ashland’s grieving, returned by the teacher, a solemn understanding passing between them. With a pat on the shoulder, the student turned and vanished through the gate. Tancred watched him trail off and then made for the tree line.
He stopped short a mere twenty yards from the trees and turned back to see Ashland standing in between the ruined doors.
“I-I just wanted to say thank you.”
Tancred looked back at him puzzled. “For what?”
“I don’t know,” he started. “Nothing. Everything.” Ashland stepped sheepishly out onto the path looking down again. “You’ve done so much that you didn’t have to, all with the burden you bear. I think I understand that now.”
Tancred continued to look perplexed, suspicious of the young man’s timing, but the realization soon came. I’ll be damned, he knows. Unsure of how to hide his revelation, he fumbled through the words, vainly looking for the right combination, but ultimately he said nothing and looked away.
Ashland continued, “You don’t have to say anything. I don’t know, I guess I just wanted to tell you that, if you had any doubts” — there was a slight emphasis on the word — “just know that everyone considers you part of the family.” His eyes finally met Tancred’s. “I do, too, actually. I even think of you as a brother.”
Tancred found books for a living, even dabbled in teaching people to read them. In all the words he had learned, he simply said, “Me, too, Ashland.” He blinked several times, unsure where that acknowledgement came from.
Ashland nodded and smiled in contentment, then turned to go back in, stopping short. “Be careful, Tancred. We’ll see you soon.” And he was gone.
Tancred waited to see if Ashland would return. When he didn’t come, Tancred looked to the woods, the escape they provided, and then back to the walls of the community that had sheltered him, which he was about to abandon. He took a step towards the tree line.
The rumbling in his head roared into a howl.
Thoughts of his wife swarmed his brain. Tears welled in his eyes as the images of their time together flew by and like kindling became the embers of the fire she died on.
One step closer.
The years he spent after that, alone, replaced her funeral pyre, washed away by the tide of darkness, a book in his hand held up against it. Town after town and face after face washed away, joining the other innumerable ruins and skeletons that covered the world.
Another step, halfway to the edge.
Suddenly, the howling faded.
Then, he saw Ashland. He saw him back at the house, realizing how hard he tried, seeing it in his face when he screwed up.
Apples and vegetables replaced Ashland, along with images of livestock in their pens and the wheat swaying in the breeze in the Commons. They faded into the cover of a book about farming, one he had found months before.
More images flooded his eyes, the darkness struggling but falling back. The medicine in the storehouse, organized, just the way someone who had read the pharmacy book he found would know to do. People practicing defense drills, like the ones he found in the dilapidated home of a long-dead soldier. Jillian alone in her classroom with the globe.
The darkness broke. There was life here, life worth protecting. That had been Jana’s dream, because despite his best efforts, they cared for him, and they learned. It was then he realized he had stopped moving.
* * *
Copyright © 2018 by Jeremy E. Brown