This is a fairly light-hearted story, written with the above picture as inspiration. The story behind it, as there so often is whenever I write, is a serendipitous one. The picture is a response to my description of a pair of NPCs from an upcoming Dungeons and Dragons campaign I am planning – the initial idea being two apprentice mages accompanying a renowned academic on a dangerous quest. The artist interpreted my description as much younger than I envisaged and as a result I began reconsidering the initial dynamic of this sub-plot.
Thus I wrote a story about these two young girls, under the wing of a particularly harsh teacher, and it turned into a slightly silly piece about academia – an askance look at how a magic college might have been run in the past. Whether or not the Margot and Lisbet in this story will be the same Margaret Strauss and Elizabeth Regen who will be encountered by the D&D group at Iron Forest Games remains to be seen (it is highly likely the Archmage Miriel von Ludendorff alluded to below will be the same character, though).
The tower-door opened with its usual scraping of wood on stone, and at its sound there was a rush of activity in the small chamber at the top of the narrow stairs. Papers were hurriedly taken out from where they had been put to one side, and books opened to pages that at least appeared relevant. By the time the stairs had been scaled, and a tall, maternal, red-haired figure stood silhouetted in the doorway, it almost looked like the occupants of the room had been busy. Almost.
“You will write great things with no ink, I am sure. Anyway, I have need of one of you.” It was impressive how at those words the two girls who had been sitting pretending to look busy at their desks tried very hard to disappear beneath them. Green eyes flicked between the two figures before alighting on one of them. “Margot. You are most in need of tuition.” A breathless moment of silence. “You are lacking in talent.” A pale lip set between freckled cheeks began to quaver. “Remain here and write again the tenets I ordered you to learn. You will not sleep until they are completed. And, should I return to this room and find you not within it, I will give you maybe… three minutes to return from whatever necessary errand led you to leave.” It was unforgiving, but it was not a mysterious late-night summons. The realisation of this suddenly fell upon the other girl.
“Lisbet. Would you please collect together paper and ink and pen and follow me?” Seconds later, the older woman was already headed down the stairs. “Lisbet?”
“I am fetching my shoes, mistress.” The silence that followed suggested that shoes were an extravagance here. The apprentice weighed up the choice of damnations, cold feet or cold stares, and decided on long-term comfort.
“Follow closely.” At night, the library’s stacks were unpleasantly silent and dark. It was a misconception that a spellbook had a life of its own, but the cold wooden aisles were still oppressive things that seemed to stare down at interlopers. Of course, Lisbet was not scared. That was the sort of silly thing that only children and the newest of apprentices who still believed the tales would be. Her mistress would not permit such immaturity.
“Might we light a candle? It is quite dark.”
“There is light enough for me. Here we are.” Nestled away in a section of the library that Lisbet had never previously visited was a small door into one of the great stone pillars, opening into a dim and precarious spiral stair. It took little thinking to realise that it would be quite impossible to both hold onto the welcoming handrail and not drop the pile of papers she was holding. In fact, she was already beginning to realise her grip on the whole collection of material was a little inadequate. Ink was dripping down the inside of her sleeve from the improperly-shut bottle. “Step carefully. We have something of a climb.”
Somehow even that was an understatement, for the number of stairs (remarkable in its own right) was nothing compared to the terror of climbing them laden with materials that needed to be kept firmly held, in half-light and soft, grip-less shoes – but eventually the stairway opened out into a reading-room hidden in one of the domes or attics of the library. Lisbet dropped the papers onto a waiting table and tried using one sleeve to wipe the ink off the other, ending up with two very stained sleeves.
“There are dozens of these private studies around the library. They offer peace and quiet, and most importantly a place to work.”
“You are not a wholly lost cause, Lisbet. You could be potentially great. But in the meantime, there is much for you to do. Take a seat if you please, right there.”
Lisbet rather hoped the blue-black smears her dress was leaving on the elegant cherrywood chair and its green upholstery would not show too much.
“Prepare a page for writing.” Her eyes darted around the room looking for water to clean her fingers. “Do you require something?”
“I need to clean my hands.”
With a conspicuous lack of sound, the older woman snapped her fingers and the ink-stains dissipated. “I could have cleaned your dress but you will be doing the laundry tomorrow so one more garment will not be a significant imposition. Now, I have research to do for the moment. Please write the citations I provide accurately, and do not speak unbidden.”
Silence interspersed with never-repeated instructions continued for hours until suddenly there was the sound of more footsteps. Urgent, hurried ones. The shock of it caused Lisbet to snap a nib and leave a colony of dead flies across a pristine page, resulting in her long-suffering sleeve once again doing duty as an inkcloth to stop the droplets soaking through to the other side and necessitating the rewriting of a densely-filled page of notes and citations. She was so preoccupied with trying to salvage her notes that she did not even notice the messenger’s arrival.
“Your Grace, there is news of the alignment of the stars. It is to occur tonight, in perhaps an hour by our calculations.”
“Sooner than expected. It is a good thing we are here. Lisbet, please go to the Tower of Astronomy and fetch my telescope. Return within the hour.”
The apprentice set off down the stairs once again, a wholly fresh panic setting in to replace the boredom and aching wrists of copy-work. Carrying a brass telescope and its attendant manuals first down the ladders of the astronomy-tower and then back up the spiral stairs to the reading-room which apparently was the best place to see the events was its own challenge.
A shooting-star, especially a three-tailed one, was an omen that would be recorded in the history-books as the prefiguring of a new era. Apparently it was seen across the land, and even the King and Queen were awoken by its strange light. Regrettably, the person who would record it in those history-books, who would ensure that that odd winter’s night would be a thing of legend, never actually saw the shooting-star. Lisbet Regen was, instead, sat miserably with numb feet and aching hands at a writing-desk crammed into the corner of a remote reading-room, dutifully recording in very plain and academic terms the wonders passing her by outside in a book that would in time be published under the name of Archmage Ludendorff.