“Is it true what they say, Master?”
“Is what true?”
“Do the dead truly walk in the fields north of town?”
The elderly man closed the heavy book on the large wooden podium, then turned to look at his apprentice, standing among the tall shelves of the great Library of Trestlebridge. “I do not know,” he admitted, “but it would be interesting if they did, would it not?”
The acolyte nodded quietly, before a puzzled expression took over his face. “Interesting? Wouldn’t it be more terrifying than interesting?”
“Terrifying, yes. But still interesting. Think of the old questions of philosophy which would take on new meaning.”
The apprentice looked askance at him. Tristan, the Lore-master of Trestlebridge, had chosen him to be the apprentice Lore-master from among the ranks of the Library’s Archivists. It had been a proud day, and the time spent studying under Tristan had been anything but dull. And they had definitely been enlightening. He had been an Archivist, and he hadn’t even realized just how many books there were in the Library.
“For instance, if the dead could walk again, would that make them immortal?” Tristan continued, picking up an apple from a nearby desk and sniffing it. “And if so, would that not make all of us immortals as well? Old books of Elvish lore suggest that we all have a mortal body and an immortal soul. When the soul leaves the body behind…well, who can really say? These dead might know more than we do of such things.”
“The trick would be to convince them to tell us,” the acolyte responded wryly.
Tristan smiled and pointed at his apprentice. It was one of the highest forms of acknowledgement he was known to give out. “Why the sudden interest in the dead? I thought you were not over-fond of such stories, preferring recorded histories.”
The acolyte shrugged. “I think the line between the two is not so clear as I once thought it was.”
Tristan took a bite out of the apple and grinned while chewing. “That is the beginning of the path to wisdom. What changed your mind?”
“I was reading from the Founder’s Book earlier,” said the acolyte, gesturing at the tome which Tristan had just been examining. The Lore-master stepped aside and took another bite. The acolyte opened the book toward the middle and began flipping through pages. He found the passage he had been looking at and began to read:
Then came the ghost king in great vengeance. The Hill-men of Deadmen’s Dike were scattered like chaff in the wind. Some say that they abandoned their homes in the fields and went to live in the treacherous passes of Nan Wathren, though any who tried to visit them caught no glimpse and accounts of such sightings are likely apocryphal. More likely is that they sought shelter again amongst their own kind in the shadows of the old Witch-realm.
Whatever the case, any visitor to the fields south of emptied Norbury will find no trace of the Hill-men who once tilled the soil. But still on the ghost king and his kind came, ravaging the northward defenses of Trestletown.
The acolyte looked back at Tristan, who was almost finished with his fruit. “This was recorded by a Lore-master of Trestlebridge,” the acolyte said. “A Lore-master who was recording events as he saw them. He saw the dead advancing on the town!”
Tristan nodded sagely and placed the apple core on the table. “Did this unnamed Lore-master really record events as he saw them?”
“That is what is recorded in the Founder’s Book, is it not?”
“Does anyone report what they see?”
“This is another test, isn’t it?” The acolyte crossed his arms. “Is it a requirement that the Lore-master be deliberately abstruse and mysterious in all of his actions?”
Tristan laughed. “I had asked the same of my master, once upon a time. Master Kyra.” He paused, reminiscing. “Do you know what she said? ‘No information is ever given in a pure, objective form. It always comes with speculation, an agenda, a context.'” Tristan turned to his acolyte. “This is the role of the Lore-master, you know. To acknowledge the mystery and to pierce the veil, to see truth where others see obfuscation.” He grinned. “And one of the perks of the job is being able to say words like ‘obfuscation’ without anyone batting an eye.”
“A long time ago, the Lore-master of Trestlebridge made up an army of the dead that marched from the fields to the north and destroyed the entire northern half of the town?”
Tristan sighed. “That is not what I said.” He walked over to the Founder’s Book, looking at it fondly, almost wistfully. “Have you ever heard of a group called the First Circle?”
“No, who were they?”
“The First Circle were very like the tradition of the Lore-masters of Trestlebridge. In the days of Arnor the North-kingdom, the First Circle was a group of scholars who would occasionally be called upon to advise the king. The Master of Coin was often chosen from the members of the First Circle, as were many great tacticians.
“But as time went on, they began to branch out from their roles as advisors. A group of scholars from the First Circle took up residence in the fortress of Fornost. There they pursued study for study’s sake. It was said that they were investigating rumors from the Hill-men who dwelt near them. Rumors of a fountain hidden far in the hills.”
Tristan caught the eye of his apprentice. “A fountain of immortality.”
The acolyte scoffed. “Immortality again?”
“It was said that those who bathed in its waters would be rejuvenated, adding years to their lifespans. Those who drank of it would live forever.”
“And these scholars believed the stories?”
“Of course not,” laughed Tristan. “A fountain of youth? How ridiculous would that be? But remember: Speculation. Agenda. Context.”
“Even if the stories were not completely factual,” the acolyte said slowly, “they were inspired by something.”
“So the First Circle were trying to recreate whatever had inspired the stories of the Fountain of Youth.”
“Well, Fountain of Immortality, but yes. That is what I believe is what they had tried to do.”
“And were they successful?”
Tristan watched his apprentice carefully. “According to the tales, they experimented on volunteers from among the Hill-men.” He leaned in closer, raising his eyebrows. “And they were successful.”
The apprentice frowned. “So all of these walking dead…you called them immortal. You think—”
“I think the dead who walk in Fornost are not dead at all, but the surviving experiments of the First Circle,” declared Tristan.
“But how could they be confused with the dead?”
“Fornost fell over a thousand years ago,” shrugged Tristan. “I’m sure after the first hundred or so they wouldn’t look entirely lively. And who’s to say there weren’t horrible side effects?”
The apprentice seemed to weigh this thoughtfully. “You learned of all of this from your study of the Hill-men?”
Tristan sighed. “It is true, most of my research had been into the Hill-men of Eriador. But no, much of this was from the study of Master Kyra.” He laughed. “It is almost a tradition that we find ourselves drawn to complete the work which our predecessors have begun. It would surprise me not at all if one day you were able to meet the Hill-men I have been trying without success to track.”
“It says they may have gone to the passes of Nan Wathren.”
“Not likely,” said Tristan, waving a hand dismissively. “If they had merely fled to Nan Wathren, how is it that none of them had ever been rediscovered? The passes are just north of the gorge!”
He closed the Founder’s Book again, the heavy volume falling shut with an ominous thud of finality. “My time has come to go,” he said softly.
“What?” asked the acolyte, startled. “Go where?”
Tristan shouldered a pack that had been leaning behind the podium. “I am going to Fornost. I want to talk to these…dead. Ask them questions. Find out who they really are. Learn.” He looked with a small measure of pride at his apprentice. “One day, you too will probably face this wanderlust to continue learning in the wide world. Until then, I leave you with this.” He patted the Founder’s Book.
The acolyte opened his mouth but no words came out. This was all so sudden. How to respond in such situations?
Tristan smiled, then walked over and clasped his hand. “Live well, Master Jerrold.”
♦ ♦ ♦
Jerrold snapped out of his reverie as the mist gathered around him. He returned his focus to the gravestone. Tristan had been found a couple of weeks later, slain in the wet fields north of Trestlebridge. He hadn’t made it very far.
That was over thirty years ago. Since then, Master Jerrold had turned into an older man. He had reorganized the Library and discovered an entire shelf of scrolls, tomes, and notes he had never seen before: Master Tristan’s research on the Hill-men. But Jerrold himself had become focused on the stories of the Ghost King who had undoubtedly killed his master.
Others called it insanity, but what did they know?
He had taken an apprentice but that one, too, disappeared north of the bridge and was never seen or heard from again.
“You thought they were immortals, old friend,” he whispered to the stone before him. “But in the end, you were right about a different thing: we are all immortals in our own stories. As you shall live forever in your research and your teachings. I have found another to keep your words alive.”
A small noise came from behind him. He turned to find a young woman clearing her throat.
“You must be the new Apprentice Lore-master,” he greeted. “I am Master Jerrold. What is your name?”
“Raelynniel…” he mused. It didn’t ring any bells. “I have a feeling in my bones you are going to settle in rather well here. Let us return to the Library.”