Amery’s footfalls reverberated over the ancient stone courtyard of the College. Evening was falling fast, the way near-winter evenings do, and the gas lamps were being lit. Flocks of the black gowned students were returning to their dormitories within the College grounds. Those who had attended the College long recognized Amery and pointed him out to each other, muttering under their breath as they walked. Amery paid no attention to them, only continuing his course across the courtyard which was the central hub of the three College buildings. Their steeple windows watched him menacingly as he maintained a steady course for, what was loosely called, the library, though Amery knew there were more lecture rooms than books in it.
The building’s white-washed face and corinthian pillars loomed over him, even it’s front door towering over him. He reached the threshold of the library just as a laughing group of students pushed open the door. Amery caught the door as they passed, noticing their unabashedly contemptible stares. Amery let himself in without pausing, reminding himself he was no longer tied up in the esoteric tangle of the Lerga College any more, and therefore didn’t care what they thought of him. The door shut behind him with a reverberating clap, and he faced the long, central hallway of the library. It appeared dim and abandon for the night; its rich mahogany walls darker and more austere in the low light.
He continued his course down the long, high-ceilinged corridor, his leather shoes drumming against the cold, checkered floor tiles. The old, wood-carved busts and oil paintings which had made up his environment years ago observed him again with unfriendly eyes as he walked deeper into the heart of the library. It had been a long time since he had visited the room he was going to, but he found he still knew the way as easily as if he had never left. Suddenly, a voice ripped his thoughts out of a myre of bitter nostalgia and anxious urgency.
“Who’s there? The library is closed for the night.”
Amery whirled around with a start and saw a familiar face. She recognized him as well and immediately her expression took on a transformation of incredulous surprise. She was the College librarian, one of the strictest and most devoted members of the College that Amery had known.
“Mr. Amery,” She began, “you’re…not supposed to be here.” Amery swallowed and turned full to face her, saying in reply,
“I was just coming in to see…” But before he could finish she had already put down her stack of books and was storming across the hall toward him, saying with intensified severity,
“You are not going to see anyone. You are going to leave this building and go back to town where you belong.” As she was speaking she had grabbed Amery beneath his shoulder and was leading him back toward the door. Though she was a head smaller than he, and her grip was not very strong, Amery found it impossible to bring himself to object. But before the librarian had gotten Amery to the door again, a second voice echoed in the dim hallway.
“Who is it?”
The librarian stopped and let out a little defeated groan, then turned to face Professor Richard Hearthbrow, who leaned out of a doorway at the far end of the hall.
“Just a town-boy I found snooping around the library, I was just showing him out.” She replied in a gracious tone. Instead of replying, Professor Richard to a step out of his study and looked keenly at Amery who fixed him with a resolute expression and said,
“I’ve come to see you about today’s trial. I think I have some things to say which you need to hear.”
“Is that Mr. Amery?” The professor said in a loud and ambiguous tone, which quickly switched to one of impatient contempt, “I don’t have time for this. Show him out.” The librarian resumed her grip under Amery’s arm, but this time Amery found nerve to pull back and reply to the professor before he could shut his door,
“It will only take five minutes of your time! There’s some facts only I have which prove Rafael’s innocence!”
“Wait!” The professor bellowed reluctantly. The professor re-emerged from his study and motioned brusquely for Amery to come. The librarian vexedly released her grip on him and Amery hastily bounded down the hallway, straightening his shirt as he did. Arriving at the professors study, he found him holding the door for him with a discourteous scowl on his conventionally smiling face.
“Thank you sir, you won’t regret it.” Amery said, letting himself into the richly furnished study.
“I certainly hope not.” Professor Richard replied, tersely shutting the door. Before the professor could ask Amery to take a seat in one of the leather chairs which faced his desk, he saw Amery already had. The professor looked at the eager boy and scoffed under his breath as he walked around to the other side of his desk. He picked up a smoldering pipe he had been smoking and resumed it as he sat back in his wingback chair. He motioned for Amery to begin impatiently, saying,
“Get on with it, I have papers to grade.”
Amery sat back into his seat and crossed his leg over his knee leisurely, adopting a powerful air of calm and confidence. For a moment he let his cool eyes drift over the room, looking noncommittally at the world maps and star-charts hanging on the walls. Summoning a tactful tone, he spoke,
“You’re a very learned man, Professor Richard. That’s a quality I’ve always admired of the Hearthbrow family.” The professor puffed his pipe, eyeing Amery without making a response. Amery continued, leaning forward confidentially, “But the reason I came to you, and not the other two, is because I believe you have an added quality of character which the others lack.
“And what is that?” Professor Richard humored, taking the pipe from his lips for the first time. A slight grin glistened on Amery’s face, as he replied,
“You’re also a wise man, with strong convictions.” The professor returned his pipe and continued observing the boy. But he did not stop Amery, so he continued, “And, I would say, the most devoted of the three to the Lerga Creed and the mandate of the College, which is where I come to my point.” The professor lifted his eyebrows as Amery continued, “The creed clearly states, it was by the wisdom of our mothers and the knowledge of our fathers that the College would come to reap a harvest of power, am I correct?” The professor nodded, visually becoming more engaged. Amery went on, “Now anyone with eyes to see can discern that your conviction of captain Amos was well put by, and if I may say so, a characteristically Hearthbrow display of wisdom and knowledge.”
The professor nodded his head with more life than before, evidently enjoying Amos retelling of the event, but it was clear he was still waiting for the crux of Amery’s reasoning. Here Amery let his eyes wander the room again with some vague dismay, as he went on,
“But your conviction of Rafael was an oversight, and not by my opinion only…” Amery hastened to add, “But by the facts of the trial. For, if Captain Amos is anything like the vile sorcerer you’ve accused him of being, and Rafael has served under him as a fisherman’s apprentice for all these years, you’d have to surmise by the facts that Rafael would be the one most likely to be put under a spell.”
“What do you mean by, ‘a spell’?” Professor Richard grumbled through a cloud of pipesmoke.
“Well…” Amery began again, unperturbed and half-humorously, “After all, we are referring to a forbidden art which excels at the manipulation of human wills. I don’t believe it’s too much to suppose that Rafael, if he did have any hand in Amos’ crimes, was doing so against his own will.” Amery left room here for the professor to respond. Professor Richard puffed his pipe for a moment and his eyes became distant with deep thought, a real encouragement to Amery. Finally, he said,
“Yes, I see what you mean. I suppose it is possible.” Amery felt his heart flutter, though he took pains not to show it in his countenance. The professor continued, “But isn’t it equally possible that all those years spent apprenticed to a dark magician, fishing was not all that young Rafael was learning?” The professor fixed Amery now with a sharp, unyielding gaze, which immediately sapped the hope from his heart. The professor had put his pipe down and was continuing with an accusatory tone. “And couldn’t I further surmise that, if Rafael is in collaboration with captain Amos, you too by merit of defending him are subject to the same suspicion?”
Amery could not keep the alarm he felt from flooding his eyes as the professor reached for the scarlet rope which hung near the professor’s desk, which he knew would summon the library stewards. Amery immediately began to search the room for alternative escape routes. The professor continued as he jerked the rope, “Ever since you left this institution I’ve had my doubts about your character, and those doubts have only been solidified since I learned of your non-scholastic activities with Rafael and those other town-delinquents.”
Though the situation had turned dire and time was short, Amery could not help but eye the professor with incredulity. The professor curled a smile at the boy’s expression, and said, “Yes, I know all about your secret meetings in that barn, your…what do you call it, ‘Vault of Silence’.”
Amery shot up from his seat suddenly, as he heard the sound of fast footfalls in the corridor.
“Who told you about us?!” He demanded. The professor’s resolute and rigid expression deepened as he stood up and replied,
“An ex-member of yours with more sense than you ever had.” Amery could hear the footsteps at the door now. As the doorknob rattled, Amery abruptly leaped up on a table which was stacked with papers and books, and scattered them. The table was set against a wall where was a curtained window. He pushed aside the curtains quickly and began tampering with the window’s latch just as the door opened. Just as Amery had it unlocked and was lifting it open to escape, he glanced back to see both Professor Richard and his old friend Martin making a mad dash for him. With a swift motion, Amery swung himself out the window, Martin only managing to tear a sparse fistful of hair from Amery’s head as he escaped.
Amery had managed to sprint over the College lawn and vault over the north wall before he heard the College bells ringing the alarm. He knew they would soon be after him, but it made no difference. His plan was going perfectly so far, so long as the others were holding up their end of it.
The luminary radiance of the Lady’s graceful form filled the dank waterwheel chamber where Amos and Rafael stood in awe. Rafael was filled with a very different sensation to what Amos felt. To Rafael, the sight of the Lady, so clear and plainly true, was the fruition of his mental transformation which began at the trial and which was realized on the wagon ride to the old mill. For Amos, the sight of the Lady in her fullness was the deepest root of his guilt and despair. For both there was such a myriad of indescribable emotions, they were left speechless in her silent presence. Then she spoke, with that ghostly and paradoxical tone of presence and distance,
“Aren’t you the man who I raised and fed until your soul was empowered and matured?”
With thick dread, Amos realized she was not addressing Rafael, nor them both, but directly speaking to him. For a minute, he was able to maintain his gaze on her young but timeless face. But then he began to recognize the features in her expression which were unavoidably characteristic of Annabel. Her unsmiling, urgent, and compassionate eyes which pierced every evasive mask. He dropped his eyes as she continued, drifting closer like a moonlit cloud. The light on the damp, stone floor beneath him intensified as she drew near, and continued to speak, “Surely I had given you weapons which would keep you safe, and keep your hope unconquered; if you had not thrown them away.” Amos glanced up at her again with plagued eyes, and for a moment forgot that she was a phantom, so genuine and present was her appearance. A troubled expression passed over her face as she move back a pace, saying, “Don’t you recognize me? Why don’t you say anything? Are you speechless with shame or amazement?” Finally, Amos found the strength to speak what his troubled mind,
“Once, in a dream, you told me I was more dead than you.” Rafael fixed Amos with a puzzled expression, though the Lady lifted her chin with understanding, as the captain continued, “I’ve begun to see the truth in that. I died a long time ago, even before I adopted Annabel as my daughter…I must have died in the war.”
The lady stood erect, her stature baffling the eye so that she appeared impossibly tall, as if her head would scrape the stars if she were outside that confined chamber.
“You misunderstand what I told you. In fact, you were most alive in the war; it was when you set foot on this island that you lost your sight of the truth and gave up the truth for a comforting lie.”
“What do you mean?” Rafael chimed in, utterly puzzled by what was being discussed. The Lady looked at Rafael and continued, as the captain fell silent again,
“You both have fallen under the influence of Lerga, the force that governs the heart of the townspeople and blinds them to the truth, as they look for meaning in the Hearthbrows. It was for the truth that I left the island.”
Rafael could not help but ask the question now which had been burning in his brain since first he laid eyes on the Lady.
“Who are you?” Amos looked up as Rafael said this, clearly just as eager to know the answer as he. A thin smile came over her face, then blossomed into an uncontrollable, girlish grin.
“I think you’ve already guessed half the truth.” She began to answer, “I am the afterimage of the Annabel you both knew; that Annabel is still alive, and in the Helm of Nations.”
A powerful wave of shock roared through Rafael’s chest like cannonball, for though he had had his suspicions of the truth, he had learned not to trust his hopes. Now that hope was a roaring fire fueled by the Lady’s testimony, and he found he had to sit down for his weak knees. Amos remained standing, though his face was aghast with a complex mixture of shock and disbelief. The Lady continued, amused by their expressions,
“There’s much you don’t understand, but I cannot tell it all to you here and now…time is running short.” Both looked up at her with renewed attention.
“What do you mean?” Amos now urged her. The Lady’s expression darkened as she continued with a heavier tone,
“The College is not a benign force of evil, they’re mission is for power and domination of this island through a deeper and more sinister channel.” She paused here, as her tone became even more grave, “The College is only one far-reaching arm of a greater beast which festers in the heart of the world, and which is bent on the same mission.” She turned her eyes back on Amos and said, “Can you remember the war, Amos?”
Amos furrowed his brow and gave an odd smile, as if to ask such a thing was an insult or joke. But his expression changed again as he thought hard about it, and soon his face wore a vague distress.
“No, I can’t recall specifics…but I did fight in a war, the great war to end all wars, which ended in the Reckoning.”
“There was no Reckoning.” The Lady said promptly, “That was an invention of the College. There was a great war, though it was not the war in Europe you know from history books. You fought in the war for Tellous, at the center of the world.”
Rafael and Amos were both baffled by what the Lady meant, so Rafael ventured to ask,
“What’s Tellous? No, Boethius and Amos both fought in the great war against the Germans. Most people say we’re descendants from New Englanders, though most evidence was lost before the Hearthbrows arrived in Lerga with the settlers…” Rafael’s words died in his mouth as the Lady shook her head.
“No, Annabel believed that too once, before she left to the Helm of Nations.” Both Rafael and Amos looked at the Lady with increasing bewilderment as she continued, “You are descendants of the earth, but you are far from that world. This is Tellous, the realm of the Luminaries, and the island of Lerga lies on its farthest rim.” They were speechless, and the sight of their faces was enough to make the Lady laugh an echoing, angelic laugh of delight.
“If only you knew who you really were, both of you, the great deeds you both did in the war, but I have no time to tell you all now. Now you must listen, for what you do in the next few hours will be crucial for more than your own fates, but the fate of the world, and the fate of Annabel in the Helm of Nations.” Rafael and Amos tried to recover themselves to listen. They realized that the Lady’s once clear appearance now was becoming faint, and agitated like a clear pond rippled by the wind.
The Lady came close and spoke with new urgency as she faded from their sight,
“Follow the stream to my grave, and return my feather there. Once it is there I will finally be whole, and can be put to rest. Only when my spirit is put to rest can Annabel have full life and be set free.”
“Is she in danger? Is she safe?!” Rafael said back to the Lady, instinctually shouting as her voice was becoming more distant. She ignored what Rafael said and continued, “Once this is done, you must follow the albatross. He will show you to the Helm of Nations. You must all leave the island.”
By this time, the Lady was nothing more than a blurry, vaporous glow in front of them, and her voice sounded as if it came from a mile away. Amos shouted back desperately,
“But how do we get out?!”
“Keep it down! You already gone crazy down here?” Replied another familiar voice from behind them. They both whirled around to see, across the chamber, behind the adjacent portcullis, and a little ways down the passage beyond, a lantern was being carried by a small group of boys. Rafael immediately recognized the voice as belonging to Hermon and rushed toward the barrier with, aglow with delight. Hermon continued in a low voice,
“Don’t make too much ruckus, those deputies are still standing guard up in the mill.”
“How’d you find us?” Rafael managed to say through his excitement, looking over his friends who looked overjoyed to see him safe.
“I’ve s’plored every cave and hole on this ol’ island.” Wallie explained proudly, producing a wood saw out of his knapsack. “You don’t think I wouldn’t know about this place? Thisn’s best ‘cause it’s haunted.” He added.
“It’s what?” Vincent stuttered, standing at Aldous’ side.
Amos came up to Rafael’s side, smiling though unsure what to say. Rafael spoke up as Wallie began to saw away at the old beams of the rotting portcullis,
“Where’s Amery? Isn’t he with you?”
“He’s going to meet us on the outside.” Aldous said in reply, “It’s all part of a plan we made when they carted you two off.”
In a few minutes, Wallie had managed to cut out a sufficient gap for them to crawl through, and Aldous reached a hand through, saying,
“C’mon, we heard the alarm bells rings so we don’t have long.”
“Wait…” Rafael said, looking back at Amos, whose dejected and melancholy expression had been almost entirely expunged, and in its place was a resolute and brave countenance.
“We have to go that way.” Amos said, pointing across the chamber to where the opposite passage began.
“What? Why?” Hermon retorted, in characteristically pugnacious tone.
“Didn’t you see anything that just happened in here?” Rafael asked them. They looked at each other in puzzlement.
“I didn’t see nothing.” Wallie replied honestly.
“Are you cracking?” Hermon jabbed at Rafael.
“There’s no time to explain it.” Amos boomed, “We just have to follow the stream.”
The boys all furrowed their brow at Amos, clearly still unsure of his trustworthiness since the trial. They said nothing for a long moment, until Aldous looked down at Rafael and said with a very sincere tone,
“Do you trust Captain Amos, Raf?” Rafael turned and looked Amos in the face, and replied to Aldous after a pause,
“Yes, with my life I’d trust him.”
The four of them nodded in mutual submission, as Aldous concluded,
“Then lead the way.”