The list had no end. The yellowed, six-inch wide span of parchment, thin as a Bible page, spooled out of the old man’s hands both above and below, falling on the floor in a tangled, Gordian mess. It filled the room, piling up in great drifts of paper that had to be swept aside so others could pass, obscuring the cupboards and bookshelves that lined the wall in an imitation of the snow that fell endlessly outside the single, circular window. A fire blazed in a great hearth at the opposite end of the room, a heavy iron grating covering its wide mouth so that sparks wouldn’t set the never-ending list alight. That had happened but once, and the repercussions had been terrible to behold.
Spectacles perched on the tip of his large nose, the old man peered through the flickering firelight and woodsmoke at each entry on the list—a name and birthday, written in a neat, efficient elfish script. He would read each name to himself, mouthing the words carefully, as though tasting each syllable. On occasion he might stroke his beard and sit back, puffing on his pipe for a moment, his eyes far away. The name would glitter in his mind, a constellation of memories and feelings, each as sudden and as real as though he were experiencing them himself. Sometimes he would laugh at this, a small smile playing across red lips; other times he would sigh heavily, and his lips would retreat behind the snowy tresses of his beard in a deep frown. When this happened, he would produce a small stick of charcoal and draw a thin, black line through the name in question. His inspection through, he would take a deep breath and move on to the next name.
Every few hours, the parts of the list which had been reviewed were snipped off by silver shears and carted away in a wheelbarrow of gold and deep green. It was from there to the archivists, who would record which names were unmarked and marked for posterity. This was, arguably, the most important part of the process, but the old man paid it no heed. He hadn’t the time anymore. All that concerned him, all that could concern him, was the present—the inexorable, pitiless present which consumed his every waking hour.
Name after name after name paraded before his tired, old eyes—the lives of countless people dancing through his heart. He felt the warm glow of a child’s happiness and the lovely flutter of a youth’s discovery; he felt the trembling excitement of young love and the warm pulse of a love well-worn with age. These things made him happy, yes, but also brought with them his own memories, keen and tinged with grief, of times he would no longer see. More and more, however, he found himself drawing his charcoal across the names. These brought with them other feelings—the sting of bitter resentment, the slow burn of buried anger, the shuddering horror of a cruel act, and sometimes even worse things, things which he could scarcely bear to feel. These things made him weary beyond words; they weighed upon his ancient bones like Marley’s chains, and sometimes he would close his eyes for a while before going back to the list.
Once, a long time ago, there had been an end to the list. He could have done it all in a matter of weeks, sent it off to the archivists, and then seen to other duties. Those days, though, seemed far away. He had been forced to delegate so much of the work upon his elves. They, of course, had readily accepted—they were tireless and so very loyal—but he missed the work just the same. With every name on the list that he spoke, that longing grew, until it felt as though there were some massive, black hole at the center of his great belly, gnawing at the edges of his body with feelings of frustration and doubt.
There was nothing to be done, though. The list was more important than his feelings. The list was more important than him, more important than his workers, more important than anything else he did of had ever done. It was a solemn duty he had undertaken long ages ago, and he would not set it down for the sake of his own comfort.
“A fresh pipe, sir?” A shrill voice asked.
The old man looked down at the elf, dressed in the red livery of a house servant, and shook his head. “It is time for my dinner. Surely you know that, Sörig.”
The elf doffed his pointed cap and bowed. “Yes, of course, but…”
“But? No ‘buts’, Sörig, or I’ll have you back down in Sweets and Candies! I’ve a schedule to keep, and a late meal will throw it all off.”
The elf trembled beneath the man’s gaze. “I…I’m very sorry, sir, but I…”
“Dinner, elf, now!” The man roared, his beard shaking with rage.
“Yes, at once my Claus!” The elf bowed even lower and then vanished in the blink of an eye.
“Nicholas,” the old man grumbled, “My name is Nicholas.” He took a last puff from his dying pipe and then tapped the ashes out on the floor. “Nicholas.” He said again, tasting the name.
This time he felt nothing.
Author’s Note: This is the prologue of yet another project I’ve got simmering. Though I’m not actively working on it now, I’d be interested to hear what you think. Want to read more?
There is much and more you do not understand, Earthchild, Awkward Wanderer, Child of Woman. You have seen me before; you know my people by our bright eyes and sharp laughs, by how the wind plays in our many-colored hair, and how we dance upon the sea. Yet you have not seen me for all this. You do not know. You dwell upon the surface.
Many things have I been called by your people. Selkie, they say, foul siren, windborn and too free. Or thief. Or murderer. Or sneak or cheat or liar. I laugh at these petty jibes—weak chains of words by which you would bind me, as you have yourself been bound. I, though, am shinh’ar, speaker of the Secret Tongues, ancient beyond your reckoning—I will not be bound. I fly with the wind or against it, as it suits me.
For long ages have I plied the waters of Alandar and dove in her depths. I know more than you. I know how the sun rises over each horizon, and how to read the future in the stars and clouds. I know the taste of fear and the sound of cold; I can speak with birds and gamble with the waves. Your sorcery of which you are so proud cannot do this; it is dissection of the Truth, distortion of what is Real. It is but another kind of chain.
You do not see your chains, do you? It is strange to me, for I have watched you and your ancestors forge them with great care over centuries—always improving their strength, always testing their power, sundering them only to reforge them again. You are bound from birth—to land, to kin, to country, to king, to philosophy and religion and god. It saddens us; for all that you revile us, we pity you. With you it is ever what cannot be done, what ought not be allowed, what must be stopped. There is no end to your bondage or the burdens it lays upon you.
Could you but sail the waves as we do and taste the bounty of the Mother of All Things! To wander free of care, to fight or to run as passion dictates, to be a mote in the wind—present and full of promise. I have taken many lovers, killed many foes, lost many battles, wept many tears; when it has ended, though, I have laughed. How can you not? Is this not beautiful? You wonder at the magic of our singing, you speak of how our voices might tempt sailors to founder on the rocks, but have you ever thought that the wonder you feel and the joy our songs bring is not our doing, but your own? It is your souls, bound and docile within your hearts, screaming out for their freedom!
Ah, but what grand jest this is. You will not listen; I have told you this before. If not I, then another of my brethren; if not you, then one of your fathers or father’s fathers. You are bound—you are Earthchild, doomed to live and build and die for duty or honor. I am shinh’ar, windborn, Speaker of the Secret Tongues, base selkie, siren, and foul cheat and liar. I make a game of your struggles; I mock your pain. Why would you heed me? Where would be your profit?
Call me mad. You I shall call slave.