For merchants, the place to be was Kalefheit, Heart of Kalef. Fables of the stupid rich, buying relics for ten times what they were worth, and of poor men, who went from starving to retiring in the space of a day, abounded in the world of trade.
So two men rode east across the desert, one on horseback, one on camel, hoping to find themselves dressed in colored silks on the other side. Three days were left to travel, with one village, Mideia, between them and the city, when they found two dead men lying face down in the dirt. Both packs appeared to have been rifled through, and the sand around them was stained black with dried blood.
“A follower of York got lucky here!” One man shouted to the other through a thick accent.
“No. There is plenty left to steal. The man who killed them took their water, maybe their horses, too. But look in this pack.” Where the first man, Kerrek, was thin and gaunt looking, sharp-featured and bony, the second was broad and muscular. His name was Goreth.
They emptied the pack on the ground, and found it was filled with relics. Kerrek lit up, seeing value where Goreth saw wonder. Within was a plain set of clothes (Kerrek added it to his own gear), a corroded metal coffee mug with letters of the old language (‘ITT Industries — Bell & Goss- the second name was rusted over), a polished black pipe (a bag of tobacco was tucked inside the coffee mug, though neither man realized it’s purpose, so this was discarded), and a green book.
“Hmm… What would a Kalefheit man give for a relic of the old world? ” Kerrek’s eyes had widened with glee and anticipation.
“Food, water, his wealth and daughter?” Goreth finished the joke. Both laughed and hugged each other for their find.
Kerrek examined the pipe, while Goreth opened the book. He looked at the page, and examined the only line on it. He flipped to the back, then the front, finding nothing in the other pages. He furrowed his brow and went back to the page with words, remembering what he hadn’t used since he was a small boy. He sounded it out.
“What does that mean, Goreth?” Kerrek did not know how to read, as it was.
Goreth frowned, and shook his head. “I don’t know. But we must ride, friend. We can reach the Mideia village before sundown.”
The two strapped the finds to their rides and started off at a brisk pace. They had no food left, and Kerrek hoped to find something to eat before they slept. They rode with him in front by three lengths, contemplating his dinner. Had he looked back, he might have asked Goreth what was on his mind. To somebody who didn’t know him, he would have looked upset. But the large man rarely looked anything else, and in truth, he was looking on thoughtfully.
The book was no tome, and not heavy by any means. But he could have flipped to any page, and yet he flipped to the only one with words on it. It was a funny little coincidence…
Before Goreth could think on the matter any longer, he fell from his horse and died.
Kerrek, while irritated briefly, laughed at himself a moment later, remembering that he was going to kill Goreth anyway, to avoid splitting profits. He had planned on doing it in two nights, while they slept between Mideia and Kalefheit. This was just as well for him, as now his only hindrance was tying Goreth’s horse to his own camel.
He did not realize — how could he? — that had Goreth lived for another day and night, he would have become richer than either of them could have hoped.
But he rode on to Mideia.
Kerrek did not want to sell his wares in the village. It was poor, and nobody had much need for relics. And even if somebody decided to buy from him, a Kalefheit man would pay twice what he could get here. But he needed food. Or rather, he wanted food, and figured that buying something to eat in Mideia was more prudent than in Kalefheit, if one had a choice. At least until he made his fortune.
So he would sell one relic from the pack he and Goreth had found. He would accept nothing less than what he could use to buy one of the chickens he had seen on his way into the heart of the village, and then he would eat, sleep, ride, and get rich.
Sitting on the blanket he had laid out, he called to anyone who would listen. “Relics! RELICS! Have you not seen the utensils of kings yet, my friends? But look and peruse, the very stuff of legends!”
As he was showing one elder the black pipe (“But what else could it be for, my friend? Orphaned infants, to suckle off of! Put the milk of a goat of your choosing in this wide end, and let them nurse at the tip…”), a young girl, eight years at most, looked over the things with wonder. The elder walked away shaking his head. Kerrek scowled, and turned to the girl.
“And just what do you need, little miss?” His voice seeped with sarcasm and acid, making the little girl cringe backwards, seeming to shrink.
“My momma told me to fetch a chicken for us to eat, tonight. She gave me this.” The little one held up a coin. Its edges were flat and rough and uneven.
Kerrek brightened, thinking about the fool’s gold he had laying before him, and thanked York for the fool before him. “Well little miss, surely your mother wouldn’t mind if you browsed for but a moment.” His tone had changed from scaly and patronizing, becoming animated and colorful. “Look at the wonders before you, and tell me what catches your pretty eye.”
She picked up the book. Odd child. “Ah, the wizard’s tome! The little miss has a good eye.” She opened the book and gasped.
“My grandmother showed me these letters!”
“Yes! She showed them to me before she died. I know the sounds they make!”
What a useless skill. “Then it’s fate, little miss! No doubt your grandmother wanted you to take this book, she sent it here!”
“Really?” “Of course! Bring it to your family, show them what you’ve found. This is worth much more than a tired old chicken, sweetling. This is magic.” The girl gasped.
“But, I only have-” She trailed off, looking at the coin. Her eyes started to swell. Kerrek got on one knee, so he could look up at her. “No, little miss, I can’t interfere with fate! Here, take the book. I’ll only take the coin, even though the Wizard’s Tome is worth its weight in silver!” Stupid girl. “Best of luck, best of luck. Run home, run, for surely your family will shower you with praise for the magic you have brought into their lives!” The little girl started running frantically with a huge grin, before she doubled back to the merchant.
“Wha-“ She threw her arms around his waist in a tight embrace, before she started running again, clutching the book to her chest.
“Stupid.” Kerrek rolled up the blanket and tied it to his horse. He flipped the coin, caught it, and walked in the direction of the chicken coop.
“Stupid girl!” Her mother shrieked. Her voice boomed in the little hut. “Stupid, stupid, STUPID!” She hit the girl across the face. “WE CAN’T EAT A BOOK!”
“But the book is-“ “MAGIC?” She slapped her again. “THERE IS NO MAGIC, ABIRT-DAMNED, STUPID, USELESS GIRL!” She grabbed up the book and hurled it like a disc out the doorway.
“SLEEP OUTSIDE! SEE IF THE BOOK KEEPS YOU ALIVE!”
The girl slipped through the doorway, crying. She found the book and stared at it, before she pounded it as hard as she could with her tiny fist. Some of the others in the village looked out at her from their huts. She kept crying while she went around back. A few minutes went by before she calmed down enough to open the book again. By the light of the setting sun, she sounded out the letters her grandmother had taught her nearly a year ago. But it only said the same thing, and felt decidedly un-magical. With that, a new wave of emotion overcame her, and she cried herself to sleep —
— and awoke in the most beautiful place she had ever seen.
It was a Wonderland, with a vivid landscape of trees and valleys, and mountains in the distance. Birds colored like rainbows flew right over her head, and she watched as amazing animals sprinted across the valley below. She looked up, and saw more stars than ever before, despite it still seeming like daytime, with two suns in the distance.
“Excuse me, little miss.”
She spun around and gasped at the man before her.
He was tall, almost twice as tall as she was, and much older. His beard was long, but tidy, down to his chest, and was bright white. His hair was the same color, as were his eyebrows, which were bushy, and raised as he looked at her. The voice he used was soft and deep, but friendly, and he was very calm when he spoke. His face was friendly too, with many wrinkles and creases on the sides of his upturned lips.
But most amazing was his cloak. It was a shimmering green, and flowed with waves of shades, from a deep, deep emerald that almost looked obsidian, to a light leafy olive, and everything in between. The girl was stupefied.
“Are- are you the wizard?” She was stammering, and even though he seemed friendly, she wasn’t sure what to make of him. But he smiled, and she felt better straightaway.
“I suppose I am… May I ask who you are, young one?”
“What a pretty name… Aleia. So, Aleia, do you know where you are?” The girl gazed about her shyly. She had never seen the animals before, had never seen a sight so beautiful.
“Am I in Heaven?”
“Ha!” The old man’s laugh was full, and deep, and wasn’t mean at all. It was young.
“No, my dear, you aren’t in Heaven. You’re far too young to see the afterlife. That’s for old men like me. You’re in the book you found, Aleia.”
“The book. I call myself the Book Keeper, but you may call me whatever you like. And in here, I suppose, a wizard is about right.”
“The book had words in it.”
“Can you read, Aleia?”
“My grandmother showed me letters, but I only know some of the sounds they make. I can’t read very good.”
“Would you be so kind as to walk with me Aleia? I haven’t had company in a very long time, and would love to speak with a bright youth like yourself.”
So they walked through the marvelous forests and valleys, and the Book Keeper answered all of Aleia’s questions. She had found a magic book, and was elated at the thought.
“It was magic!”
“Indeed. And so you see, Aleia, when people visited me before, it was a very different time, when people had all they needed, and knew all they could hope to know.”
“The Old World?”
“Yes. But I’ve went a long time without any visitors, and am so happy that you’ve come here. I do wonder what happened to the other man, he hasn’t shown up yet… Ah well. He’ll be along soon enough. What I want to ask you, Aleia, is if you’ll come back again.”
“Oh, yes, Book Keeper. This place is wonderful!” He smiled an elated smile.
“But you have to promise me something, Aleia.” His expression turned somber. “I made a mistake in the Old World, one that I will never let happen again… You have to promise me that you’ll keep being happy in your world. You may visit as often as you like, and indeed I hope you do. But you have to remember your promise, and live in your world as much as you do mine.” Aleia nodded with energy. “Good.” The Book Keeper smiled again.
“Yes, little one?”
“What did the words say? I don’t know the sounds very good.”
“It said, ‘A Hero is Born’. How much do you know about the letters your grandmother showed you?”
“Not very much Book Keeper. She only knew a little bit, too.” The smile disappeared, and the wizard looked puzzled.
“I think we’ll start there. Aleia, will you let me teach you how to read?”