20 Heroes: Torsten

Fourteenth in our Heroes series, by our own Robert Rhodes. Art is courtesy of Tiziano Baracchi.

fantasy and science fiction book reviews

He wakes before the dawn bell. His hips and fingers ache, and the flagstones beside his cot send a shiver through his legs. He tugs his feet into his slippers, then stands with a soft grunt and pulls on his over-tunic. He takes a step toward the dim outline of the door and forces his fingers to search the shelf beside it until they grasp a shard from a broken urn. He cannot see the image there, a crescent moon in a bit of night, a bone-white curve on glazing long-faded to gray. His fingers feel its smoothness, though, and the roughness of the fractured sides and the edges sharp enough to draw blood.

“What is known cannot be lost,” he murmurs in words all but forgotten from the outer world. He sighs and replaces the shard, opens the door to his chamber. The hall is empty. He pauses beside the window at its end to see the last stars glimmer in the frost-pale sky. He passes through the kitchen and greets the young man baking the day’s loaves. Beside a scarred table he stands and eats a slice of yesterday’s rye bread with cheese and a bit of salt pork, sipping water from a wooden mug. Minutes later he descends, one worn step at a time, lantern in hand, and stands before the library door.

As he has done every day for forty-one years, he lifts one of the keys chained to a locked bracer on his left wrist and opens the door. The library is dark, and the cool arid odor is the scent of his home. In the antechamber, he uses the flame of his lantern to light six others, carefully locking each one before hanging them on their chains.

He pauses then on the mosaic floor and regards the shelves and cabinets revealed in the golden light. All are in order—all have been in order for decades—so he settles at the workbench, beside a few battered tomes, to copy and rebind. The light is no longer kind to his eyes, though, and his hands cramp soon after taking up his tools or quill. His age explains why the Grandmaster has appointed the newest boy as his apprentice, and though he misses the clear silences of his solitary days, he cannot disagree with the appointment.

The boy scrambles through the door an hour later, sputtering apologies which Torsten waves away. For the rest of the morning, they sit on the workbench as Torsten explains the Janlian alphabet, speaking softly of the original runes, the high letters of the Dynasty, and the hybrid scripts of the Dissolution. He traces them slowly on scraps of parchment, spells the boy’s name in each.

At midday, they lock the door and join the others for the midday meal. The talk is of the war churning in the South, the rumors of one side being captained by demons. The boy’s eyes grow wider until Torsten gestures to the stone walls around them, walls that have housed the Order, however small, and its vaults and books for more than seventeen centuries. “Wars do not touch us here,” he tells the boy as they descend the stairs.

Yet that afternoon, they enter the library unannounced, bearing a writ from the Grandmaster. The man is young, perhaps twenty-five summers, yet wears the indigo shawl of a Seer. The woman—he has not seen a woman in almost seven years—could have inspired the bronze sculpture of the Huntress, which graces an alcove of the upper vault. The boy gapes at the sword and daggers sheathed at her hips, cannot take his eyes from her face.

Fatigue marks each visitor’s eyes, and urgency. They decline to sit, and the man instantly begins speaking of tomes or scrolls written by Binders during the Dissolution. At some point, the boy dares to ask the woman if demons are coming. The woman glares down at him and nods. A moment later she bites her lower lip and lays a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “But not if we can help it,” she murmurs, an accent edging her voice like a fresh wild spice.

Into the evening, the Seer pores over the texts Torsten brings him while the woman paces behind him and between the shelves.

“This is a copy,” the man states after Torsten helps spread a scroll before him. “Are you certain of its accuracy?”

Torsten nods at the parchment, at the marks of ink that have formed the lines of his life. “Yes, milord. I copied them myself some years ago from the original. It had become too brittle to maintain.”

The Seer nods and reads on. At the evening bell, Torsten sends the boy to the kitchen, and for the first time in fifteen years, food and drink are consumed in the library. At nightfall, the boy fails to hide a yawn as he waits on the workbench, and the man and woman speak, softly at first, then arguing.

“But there’s no ‘shadow’ on that part of the mountain!” the woman snaps. “I’ve been there, remember? No trees, no outcrops, nothing to cause one. What if a cloud—”

The man pinches the bridge of his nose, shuts his eyes. “Impossible. It would be impossible to measure for the precision of a ritual. It would have to be something trustworthy or stable. Are you certain? What if there were a tree or monument there in the past?”

The woman turns away and raises her hand, almost slapping one of the lanterns on its chain. “Nothing grows in that rock! And a monument? With no one to see it except the sun? Are you certain you understand all of this?”

“Am I? Gods, Ekaterina, I’ve studied this since—” But his words trail off at Torsten’s approach.

“Your pardon, milord and milady. If I recall … yes, yes, I think that explains it.” He bends down over the parchment, and his keys jangle as he taps a particular word. “I recall this writer. Not an easy one to copy, you see, or follow the flow of his thoughts. I suspect this was a collection of notes for his personal use. I think he was low-born, too, and eager to embrace the hybrid script as a way of distancing himself from the Dynasty more rapidly. Therefore, in context—”

“In context what?” the Seer interrupts, folding his arms.

Torsten stands, resting his fingertips on the parchment. “The primary usage of the word is ‘shadow’. But I think it likely that, in context, the secondary usage—because he does not use hythil, you see?—is ‘sun-shadow’ or ‘eclipse.'”

The man’s eyes widen, and his empty mug shudders as his palm hits the table. “Yes! And there will be one in—” His lips move silently. ‘Four days. We have four days to get there.”

The woman is already turning toward the door. “It will be close. More than close—the horses may die, and I hope you can climb. Let’s go.” Below the lintel, she glances back and nods to Torsten and the boy. The Seer does not look back.

Torsten secures the scroll and sighs. “Let’s douse the lamps, lad. And pray them wings.”

Three months later, word reaches them that the war is over.

Six years later, the boy—a young man now, named Rainier—hovers beside a sickbed and closes his mentor’s eyes with his fingertips. From the wrinkled hands he slips a shard of pottery, one edge glistening with blood. The keys to the library are his now, and day after day, like his mentor, he will tend to it, become part of it, and silently await the world’s need.

Some heroes rise in a flash of steel. Others abide.

Torsten © Robert Rhodes, 2010. All rights reserved.
art used with permission: “Merlin and Arthur” by Tiziano Baracchi

Author’s note: This one is for the faceless, nameless minor characters who have helped many a hero on their journeys. RR


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ROB RHODES was graduated from The University of the South and The Tulane University School of Law and currently works as a government attorney. He has published several short stories and is a co-author of the essay “Sword and Sorcery Fiction,” published in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading. In 2008, Rob was named a Finalist in The L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. Rob retired from FanLit in September 2010 after more than 3 years at FanLit. He still reviews books and conducts interviews for us occasionally. You can read his latest news at Rob's blog.

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2 comments

  1. Excellent! I love getting to see this character up close, who would in most novels be a vehicle for exposition, and I love the way you weave the country’s history into the flow of the narrative without it being an infodump. And I am such a sucker for plots that hinge on different interpretations of wording. :-))

  2. Thanks, Kelly. (Or ‘Gotcha, sucker!’)

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