102. A Very Old Book

The book Brother Frithil has laid on the table is the size of a headstone.

It is also very old. Its thick leather binding is brittle, and spotty with mold and other damage; if it weren’t for the hinged silver fittings—so tarnished as to give the impression of black iron—the volume would long have fallen apart. Its decrepit state makes a mockery of the metal lock meant to prevent the book from being opened. A musty odor emanates from the tome, similar to that which Stellia knows so well from her beloved archives in Maltaros, but less pleasant, with an admixture of fungal decay hinting at decades, if not centuries, of storage in places far danker and deeper than any she has visited in her quest for knowledge.

“I found this about a year ago,” Frithil says. “Our Sundrance possesses a vast library, and deep in our vaults there are immense stores of ancient texts that have not been read in centuries, if ever. For a great many of these, we have no records that would indicate their contents, much less their age and origins. One of my duties here at the Sundrance is that of a cataloguer, and the Abbot had asked me to prepare an inventory of such texts. They often contain descriptions of events that seem fantastical from our modern perspective, and which are typically understood to be allegorical in nature. When I first read this tome, I naturally interpreted certain passages in the same manner. But after what happened during Till’s visit here, I started wondering.”

Garroth points at the lock sealing the volume. “It must contain quite the secret.”

“The key appears to have been lost,” Frithil says. “Or deliberately removed. Still, I needed to determine its contents, and I did not wish to use force. So I picked the lock.”

“I managed to teach you a few useful skills, after all.”

“I can’t say I regret you did,” Frithil says. “For though it is a thief’s skill, it allowed me to access the book’s knowledge without destroying any part of it.”

He manipulates the lock. It opens with a soft click. When he parts the thick vellum pages, the book’s ancient miasma intensifies, overpowering for a moment the aroma of the herbal liquor that still lingers in the room. Nevynne wrinkles her nose. To Stellia, the book’s smell is not offensive but awe-inspiring, a palpable sign of vast antiquity that acts like a calmative on her distressed mind. For the moment, her fascination with this thing leaves no more room for anxiety and unease.

Garroth gives no sign of being aware of the smell at all. “So what is it?”

Frithil looks around the table. “I presume everyone here is at least somewhat familiar with the story of the Battle of Jontar?” His mild gaze comes to rest on Stellia.

“I know it was the final battle in Hestia’s last war against Okast,” she replies. “Five hundred years ago. The Short War, as it is called, which ended in the conquest of Okast.”

Frithil nods, satisfied. “The Short War, as it was named afterwards. That does sound better, after all, than to speak of a long campaign, one that Hestia came close to losing. Near its end, Emperor Oswind had a mere three thousand spearmen left, while the Okasti fielded an army of ten thousand.”

“And yet Hestia won,” Garroth says.

“And yet we won,” Frithil agrees. “But how was this possible?”

Garroth frowns. “Every child knows that tale. We won because the Guardian herself came to Jontar and blessed the field of battle before Oswind’s army marched against the superior Okasti host. This so inspired Hestia’s soldiers that each of them fought with the strength and ferocity of ten men. The Okasti, however, were so awestruck by the ardor of the Guardian’s faith that it unmanned them. Or so the story goes.”

“An inspirational tale,” Nevynne says. “But what does it have to do with Stellia’s brother, and the vision you say you shared?”

“A great deal, possibly.” Frithil lays a hand on the book’s stained leather cover. No title is engraved there, or perhaps no trace of it remains. “This tome contains an account of the Battle of Jontar, though you would find it quite different from the one you have read in history books, or heard in a Cresset Hall.”

“I see,” Nevynne says. “So there’s unpleasant truths in it, and it was locked by your friars to keep people from learning them.”

“No.” Frithil shakes his head. “If a friar had read this tome and disapproved of its contents, it would have been destroyed, or firmly locked away. We have storerooms where books of a distasteful or heretical nature are kept, inaccessible to all but an authorized few. After all, what determined reader would be stopped by a lock placed on a book?”

“So it’s a diary,” Stellia says.

“Indeed it is,” Frithil says. “The lock was most likely put in place by its author with the intent, if anything, to prevent others in his household from reading it. How it ended up in the possession of the Sundrance, I have no means of knowing, but I doubt anyone before me ever made the effort of examining it in earnest. It was merely one of a huge number of forgotten acquisitions gathering dust in our cellars, waiting to be catalogued one day.”

“But this author,” Stellia says. “Who was he?”

“A warrior who rode with Oswind’s army on Okast, during the Short War. He fought in the Battle of Jontar, and lived to write down what he witnessed.”

“Five centuries,” Stellia mutters, staring in amazement at the ancient book.

“The language is archaic,” Frithil says. “But it is nonetheless the same that is spoken to this day throughout Hestia, and not hard to understand, given a bit of erudition. Most of the book is a detailed account of this warrior’s life during Hestia’s last war with Okast. A great deal of it is devoted to soldierly experiences during the campaign before the final and decisive battle, and aside from some descriptions that might interest military scholars, that part of it is not particularly remarkable.”

He raises a fingertip to his lips to moisten it before turning the parchment, then reconsiders. Gingerly, he lifts one page after the other until he comes to a large, ornately illuminated letter marking the beginning of a chapter.

“Alas, it does not contain any hints as to the exact identity of its author. Judging by some of the details he gives of the campaign, it seems that he was a banneret, so he must have been of noble birth. His account ends with his journey back to Hestia, after spending some months in Jontar with the garrisons Emperor Oswind left behind. There is nothing about his life at home, however, or what family he might have belonged to.”

“Very well.” Garroth struggles visibly to mask his growing impatience. “You opened it, you read it. What does your nameless banneret write that is so unusual?”

“If this text is to be believed,” Frithil says, “something very strange happened on the battlefield at Jontar. Something that would accredit Hestia’s victory not to the valor of an outnumbered army, but to a power that turned ten thousand enemies into sheep ready for the slaughter.”

“Sheep?” Nevynne looks incredulous. “Few would disagree that the Okasti are barbarous and uncouth. But everyone knows that they are ferocious, also, and fight like lions.”

“Even lions must falter if their spirit is palsied,” Frithil says. “But you should hear this account with your own ears, so you may judge for yourselves what to make of it.”

He bends over the great book, and tracing the jagged characters with his finger, begins to read.

NEXT: The Soldier’s Tale


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