NOTE: this chapter is really long, so i will do everyone a favor by putting most of it under the cut
Getting hit by a taxi feels like having the wind knocked out of you, but the main thing that sucks about it is the part when your head collides with the asphalt. I could hear a faint scream in the back of my mind just as everything went black. It was almost as though someone was forcing me to go to sleep and I really had no say in the matter whatsoever.
In my dreams I thought back to Naomi and how pretty she looked in that summer dress when we went on our first date. Her long brown hair swaying in the breeze as we walked through central park eating ice cream cones and learning about each other with such eagerness.
I so badly wanted to curl up in that memory, to live there forever and never wake up again, but just as I had convinced myself to stay, central park faded away and I was transported to my home in Connecticut. My parents sat on the couch reading while I lay on my stomach in front of the TV, doodling on a spare piece of paper with a set of cheap crayons that had been given to me as a birthday present. The house was thick with the smell of a pot roast that was cooking in the oven.
Even though I recognized these moments as memories, there was a heightened reality about all of them. The colors popped with vibrancy and everything seemed to have a surreal look to it. Just as I was getting settled in my childhood home, the scenery changed once more.
This time, however, I couldn’t put my finger on where exactly I was. Evidently, I had been dropped in a field full of tall grass. I was having a hard time recalling ever being in a field that looked as secluded as this one, especially since I grew up in Connecticut and then moved to New York City, famous for its lack of abandoned fields.
I got to my feet and looked around for any clues of where I could be, hoping that the scenery would change for a fourth time. There was a warm and gentle breeze pulsing through the tall grass, almost as if it were breathing. After ten minutes of waiting for my surroundings to change, I gave up and began walking to what I thought would be north. I was thankful to be dressed in a jeans and a t-shirt, especially once the sun crept out from behind the clouds and thought it would be nice to warm everything up.
The tall grass began to thin out considerably as I walked along, and eventually I came up to what looked like a pathway. Following the path, it wasn’t long until I noticed more signs that I was headed in the right direction. I noticed a small fence made of fallen logs just along the edge of the woods to my left.
Soon enough, the path brought me to an intersection. As I looked both ways to try to come to a decision as to which way I ought to go, I had a considerably difficult time trying to decide which path looked better or worse. From the left, I heard the sound of hooves followed by what I thought might be a cart trailing behind it.
A short distance away, my suspicions were confirmed as a horse-drawn carriage pulled up to the intersection. A woman held the reins in one hand as she shaded her vision to get a good look at me.
“Ya need a lift into town?” She asked warmly, the wisps of her dull, brown hair fluttered in the breeze. I was hesitant to accept the woman’s kindness, but when I considered the fact that I had no idea where I was, let alone which direction I ought to walk in to get to town, I found myself nodding and hoisting myself into the seat next to her.
The back of the carriage was crammed with wooden crates filled to the brim with peaches and what I could only assume were apricots or some other brightly colored fruit. The woman waited until I was situated next to her before she set the carriage in motion.
“What’s your name, boy?” She asked, looking over at me curiously.
I cleared my throat, “My name’s Henry.”
“That’s a nice name. I like a man with a good namesake.” She smiled widely and I could see the remnants of her youth playing out in the lines of her grin. “I’m Aude.”
As the horse pulled the carriage along the dirt path, Aude told me about the fruit stand she ran in the market in the center of town. She explained that whenever she had to step out and get more fruit for the stand, her eldest daughter, Eloise, would take over.
Aude was a humble woman with three daughters and a yard full of chickens to tend to on a daily basis. Eloise, Madeleine, and Sophia could be quite troublesome at times, but Eloise usually managed to keep them all in check. Aude mentioned that I looked about her age, too, and gave me a slight nudge with her elbow.
I asked polite questions as it seemed appropriate to the conversation until the carriage began rolling over cobblestoned streets. From that point forward, I was no longer paying any attention to Aude as she talked happily about her vegetable garden and the family’s sleepy cat named Ralph that was always too lazy to catch any field mice that had made homes in the woodwork of the house.
Instead, my eyes were drawn to the people walking alongside us on the street, carrying baskets of bread and vegetables under their arms and chatting pleasantly with one another. A group of young women clad in thick, beaded jewelry sat under an awning as they crafted bracelets from deep purple thread. My senses were overwhelmed by the thick, warm smell of cooked meat and spices wafting through the air before finding a place to call home in my nostrils. It wasn’t until I smelled food that I realized I was actually quite hungry and my stomach began to rumble rather loudly.
Aude took notice shortly after, “Reach back there and grab yourself a peach, boy.” I did as I was instructed, choosing one so large it barely fit in the palms of my hands. I bit into it, juice spilling onto my cheeks and dripping from my chin, the flesh of the fruit so tender and sweet.
“I wasn’t lyin’ when I said I had the best peaches ‘round these parts,” She laughed, guiding the carriage over next to a man standing behind a counter packed with poultry. He waved to Aude as she hopped down from the carriage and began hoisting crates of peaches over to the adjacent booth.
A young girl appeared behind the counter, her hair in two long pigtails tied with purple ribbon at the bottom. She eyed me curiously as I sat in the carriage, finishing off the delectable peach and then discarding the pit on the ground. I slid down from the front of the carriage and went to help Aude unload the cart. The crates were fairly heavy, and I wasn’t exactly used to lifting things that weighed more than my cat, Doris. As I lifted one of the crates carefully and walked over to the counter, I nearly dropped it on my way, but caught myself just as I was able to set it down safely. The girl behind the counter looked as though she was holding back a laugh before she grabbed a peach from the top and bit into it before disappearing down below the counter.
I returned to the back of the cart to grab another crate of peaches and I saw a tall girl with bright ginger hair walking toward me, her arms full with a crate that looked like it was almost heavier than her. I moved to the side so that she wouldn’t run into me and she shot me a look that I took to be less than heartwarming. Shit. I probably should have offered to help her carry the crate of peaches, shouldn’t I? I mean, I may not be the strongest guy around, certainly not compared to the large man selling poultry a few feet away, but the polite thing to do would have been to at least offer my services!
Embarrassed, I continued unloading the cart in silence as Aude chatted away with the poultry man. It wasn’t long before all of the crates were stacked on the counter and created a wall of delicious, ripe, and juicy fruit. Aude finished off her conversation with the man in the booth next to hers and came over, a satisfied grin on her face.
“Haulin’ fruit is a lot harder than it looks, huh?” She asked, clapping me on the back. I grimaced as I felt my limbs already becoming sore from the manual labor.
The girl with the ginger hair walked out from behind the wall of fruit, followed by the younger girl with the blonde pigtails, and then by an even younger girl with dark brown ringlets spilling from the crown of her head. Aude introduced them as Eloise, Madeleine, and Sophia. The two youngest of the three girls waved and smiled as Eloise crossed her arms over her chest and gave a rather curt nod that showed that she at least acknowledged my presence.
“Eloise, dear, why don’t you show him around a bit? If I remember correctly, Henry’s not from around these parts, so it’d be awful kind of you to stick with him for a while.” She smiled and nudged her eldest daughter closer to me, ignoring the look of annoyance painted on her face.
Begrudgingly, Eloise lead me through the center of town past vendors selling cakes and bread and street performers juggling obscure household items.
“So if you’re not from around here, where exactly are you from?” She asked, running her fingers over a set of scarves lying on a table we passed by.
Of course I knew where I was from, but I still wasn’t sure where I was. The last thing I remember was hitting my head on the concrete as I was trying to cross the street, but that all felt so long ago. Wherever I was must’ve been deep in my conscience, tucked away behind all of my memories and thoughts. I thought for a moment before answering her question.
“I’m not exactly sure. Where exactly is ‘here’, anyway?” I asked, glancing around at the tall buildings that were incredibly top heavy and looked as though they were about to topple over at any second.
We approached what I could only assume was the town square, based on the large and majestic fountain spouting water twenty feet high in the air. Eloise and I sat on the edge of the fountain and I watched as she removed her worn leather boots to dip her toes in the cool water.
“Well right now you’re in the town of Vellum, which is about a two day trip by horse to the city of Doctrine. Basically, Vellum is more of a farm town than anything else – here, we grow produce and we trade goods, like peaches, for services, like plumbing. It’s not that exciting or anything, but it’s home, you know?” I could tell that the edge in her voice was thinning. “Over in Doctrine they do things a little different. Everyone there has to dress a certain way and greet one another in a particular manner, otherwise the King throws a hissy fit.”
“Oh, yeah, I should probably give you the run down on the way things work around these parts. Basically, King Malin has the final say over anything and everything that goes on. If there is a land issue, he decides how to split things up. Same thing goes for domestic disputes, too. He acts like he’s fighting for the underdog, but he’s really a total dick.”
I was almost alarmed at her crude choice of words, but then again I didn’t know what to expect from anyone anymore. “Why’s he so bad?”
Eloise shook her head, her bright ginger hair falling from behind her ears to obscure her fair. She reached a hand up to tuck the escaped hair back to its rightful place before speaking, “He just is. You’ll see what I mean.”
Suddenly, the blaring sound of trumpets filled the air and it seemed as though every person in Vellum’s town square dropped whatever it was they were doing and gathered around the fountain. Eloise pulled her feet from the water and hastily slid on her boots before dragging me onto my feet next to her. She and I backed up into the crowd until we were standing against the side of one of the buildings surrounding the town square. I looked around, confused and trying to make sense of the sudden call to attention before I noticed that Eloise was busy tying her hair into a ponytail and checking her pockets for something. It wasn’t long before she pulled out what looked like a quill with a sharp bright blue feather extruding from the end of it.
In all of my years of existence, I hadn’t even seen a proper quill right before my very own eyes, so it should come as no shock that I was surprised to see Eloise carrying one around in her pocket, never mind the fact that the feather at the end was bright blue. She touched the tip of the quill to her tongue and knelt down to the ground, marking a series of patterns on the brick beneath our feet. Coincidentally enough, the ink of her pen was just as bright as the feather, which danced around as she continued to scribble.
I looked around the town square and was taken aback by the number of people who now clutching brightly colored quills in one hand and a scrap of paper in the other. Some of the quills danced faster than others, but nearly everyone in the town square had their heads bent in concentration. If there was something I was supposed to be doing, I didn’t have the slightest clue as to what it was. In fact, I kind of just stood there with my jaw slack as I tried to understand why everyone was gathered around the large fountain, writing with such fervor that it was making me grow incredibly anxious.
Then, after a solid five minutes of silence throughout the town square, the trumpets sounded again and all of the townspeople gathered in the square immediately stopped writing. I looked down at Eloise for some hint of an explanation, but she had laid down the quill next to the words she had written on the brick near her foot. She did not look up at me or even make a sound, so I turned my attention to a young boy a few yards away. He was sitting on his knees and I could see his own scrawling on the brick, similar to the ones Eloise had been doing only moments before. I watched him carefully as he set down his small green quill, running his fingers over the words tenderly before the brick absorbed the ink like a sponge.
Amazed, I turned around to see ink vanishing everywhere that it had been written, and when I turned back to look at Eloise’s vanishing ink, there was a small bright blue ink pot sitting before her. A few yards away, a bright orange stuffed bear appeared on the ground in front of the young boy. He was overcome with joy and hugged it tight.
Could this really be happening? Did these people just write about what they wanted and then they got it? Just like that?
I was baffled by this, completely and utterly awestruck by what I could only consider to be magic or sorcery or something that you would only read on an Internet fan fiction website. I couldn’t even form words as Eloise stood up, clasping the ink pot in her left hand and the bright blue quill in her right. She deposited the inkpot in her pocket before she took notice of the alarmed expression on my face.
“Why do you have that look on your face?” She asked, twirling the quill around her fingers.
“You just… I don’t… How did you do that?!” I burst out, gesturing to the inkpot sitting comfortably in her pocket.
Eloise looked confused for a moment before she finally understood why I was so shocked. She laughed loudly, nearly doubling over in the process. I steadied her, still not entirely sure why she found my ignorance so hilarious.
“You seriously don’t have a clue what’s going on, do you?” She laughed, her face tinged with pink. “Oh man, that’s rich!”
“I don’t know! I’m not from here! All of a sudden everyone sort of just stopped what they were doing and got really serious about writing with quills!” I said defensively, my cheeks burning with embarrassment.
She finally stopped laughing and began to explain what I had just witnessed. Apparently, once a month, the people of Vellum and Doctrine are allowed to make one request. In order to make this request, three requirements must be met. The first requirement being that the request is written in ink. She flashed me the quill and then explained that the second requirement was that the request is something that the person needs or doesn’t already have in their possession. For instance, a man who is wealthy cannot ask for gold or currency, but a man who doesn’t have a penny to his name can request either of those items. The final requirement in order to request something is that the person making the request is to remain silent from the moment they begin writing until the moment they receive what they ask for.
She explained that it is important to get the proper quill; otherwise a request might go unnoticed or unprocessed. Eloise handed me her quill to hold in my hand and I noticed it was remarkably flexible and resilient, and not at all heavy in the palm of my hand. I ran the feather between my thumb and forefingers, feeling the soft and silky texture before I returned the quill back to its rightful owner.
“How exactly does one go about getting a proper quill?” I asked as she lead me away from the town square and back toward the market.
“Oh, it’s a long and arduous process.” She looked over at me, her bright green eyes glinting mischievously in the afternoon sunshine. “You have to be a skilled writer, proficient in your craft before you can even begin the process itself.”
“Well, how does one become skilled and proficient in their craft? Is there some sort of program I have to go through?”
She laughed and shook her head, “Wow, you just really don’t know anything, do you?” I rolled my eyes, tired of her mocking me. I couldn’t help it if I was oblivious to the things that were apparently common knowledge in Vellum! “Okay, okay, I’m sorry for poking fun at your expense. Listen; tomorrow I’ll help you get started on procuring a quill, all right? We have to get back to the stand anyway.”
The sun shrank down below the horizon, casting a bright orange and magenta over the once blue sky. The vendors in the town market were finishing up their last sales as they hastily loaded carts and hand trucks with crates full of whatever it was they were selling. The girls and I packed the carriage back up with peaches and I was glad that there were significantly less this time around. Once all of the crates were secured, Eloise and I crammed into the back of the carriage while Madeleine and Sophia sat up front with Aude as she steered the horse back the way we had rode into town earlier.
By the time we pulled up the path way to Aude’s humble abode, any last bits of sunlight were fading fast and were soon replaced by shimmering moonlight. The house reminded me of a fairytale cottage in that it had that cozy, lived-in feel to it. A small, white picket fence lined the perimeter, encapsulating a lovely garden and a chicken coop on the side of the house. The pathway leading to the door of the little house was overgrown with vines that formed a tunnel leading to the door. As we walked up the path, I had to duck my head to avoid getting a face full of ivy.
The interior of the house was just as charming as the outside. The younger girls climbed the spiral staircase up to their bedrooms while Aude fixed me a warm cup of hot chocolate on the wood-burning stove. Eloise built a fire in the fireplace and we all sat together on the large, squishy, burgundy couch.
As Eloise and Auede showed each other what they had requested today in the town center, I looked around the living room. Pictures hung on nearly every inch of the wall – pictures of the girls, cats, hens, and a man that I’m guessing was Aude’s husband. Until then, it hadn’t even crossed my mind whether or not Aude was married or divorced or widowed. I sipped on my hot chocolate and continued to look around at the various mismatched pieces of furniture, complimented by the incredible amount of interestingly odd trinkets sprinkled here and there.
“So, Henry, what’d you ask for today?” Aude asked cheerfully before sipping her own hot chocolate from a mug shaped like a large ginger cat.
“Oh, uh…” I began, unsure if Aude was going to find the fact that I didn’t know about the whole ‘requesting’ thing as funny as Eloise did.
“Henry didn’t know about it, actually.” I could feel a smug smile cutting across her face with ease.
“What? Don’t you have requests where you come from?” Aude asked incredulously.
I shook my head, the warmth of the mug now becoming uncomfortable in my hands as I felt myself being put on the spot in front of Eloise’s mother. I was never very good at speaking when being interrogated or forced to answer a series of questions. Generally, I liked to take my time forming responses for a set of questions that aren’t too difficult or terribly controversial. “Er – No… We, uh… We don’t,” I said hesitantly.
Aude was just as shocked as I had been earlier that day, and luckily Eloise was there to fill Aude in on my confusion when the trumpets went off in the town square.
“Oh my word! You musta been so terrified!” The tone in Aude’s voice was more concerned than I expected, so I just nodded and continued to sip on the slowly cooling mug of hot chocolate that I clasped in my hands for a lack of anything better to do.
“Yeah, he was pretty freaked out when he saw everyone’s requests come through. You should’ve seen his face, Mom.” Eloise snorted, kicking her feet up on rustic coffee table a few feet in front of us. She turned to flash me another look, but when she noticed that I wasn’t responding well to her harsh brand of humor, she nudged me with her elbow, “I’m just kidding, you know.”
I laughed nervously and finished the last of my beverage, awkwardly placing the mug on the coffee table and away from Eloise’s feet. “Yeah, I figured that out surprisingly quick.”
“So, El, when are you gonna show Henry how to go about getting’ himself a quill? You know how important it is to have one on ya at all times, don’t you?” She looked at me with a straight face and then pulled out her quill from the pocket of her work apron. It was long and curvy and embellished with what looked like vines or flowers (or maybe even both). From the back of the quill was a white feather that was rather flimsy looking in appearance, but on closer inspection, I noticed that it was tough and strong; practically unbreakable. I handed the quill back to Aude and she rolled it in the palm of her hand thoughtfully before tucking it safely back into the front of her apron. “If you do anything tomorrow, you really ought to see about getting yourself a quill, Henry.”
I nodded obediently. “Of course.”
“El, you better help him get a good one, too.” Aude added teasingly.
Eloise removed her feet from the coffee table and sat up quickly, “Mom, I was planning on helping him get a good one. It’s not like I would set him up with a cheap quill that leaks everywhere or one that might break after a couple of uses. I may be mean, but I’m not that mean.”
It was getting late and it must have been apparent that I was growing tired, especially since every few minutes I would yawn wide and blink my eyes for extended amounts of time. The fire had been reduced to burning coals and exposed embers that were just about to fizzle out, and I was thankful when Eloise offered up her room for me to sleep in. I graciously declined, but Aude was insistent that the guests in her home be as comfortable as possible. So, naturally, I obliged.
It hadn’t occurred to me that I actually didn’t have any clothes until Aude asked if I needed a pair of pajamas to sleep in while she gave the clothes I was wearing a quick scrub and hung them out to dry by the fire over night. She returned shortly with a matching red flannel pajama set that reminded me of Christmas mornings when I was a kid. I thanked her and climbed the spiral staircase to the second floor to get changed.
Eloise’s room was just as interesting as the rest of the house was, only there was a sweetness to it that I had not seen in her personality just yet. As I pulled on the pajama pants, I noticed the stack of books sitting haphazardly on the dresser. I cocked my head to the side and read the spines to see if I was familiar with any of them. So many things about this place were not what they seemed, so it wasn’t much of a surprise when I didn’t recognize any of the books that Eloise had stacked up in her room.
Once I had slipped into the red flannel pajamas that were just a bit too wide for me, I walked back downstairs to hand my dirty clothes to Aude. She smiled widely at me as if she were remembering someone from many years ago and I thanked her for the letting me borrow the clothes. She nodded and told me to rest well before she set off to scrub my clothes.
That night was the first night I had fallen asleep in weeks.
It’s a strange feeling to dream while you’re already dreaming – in a way, it’s almost as if you are more aware of the fact that you are asleep as you go through your REM cycle. Blissfully unaware of the world that hides beyond the looking glass through which you fell, you can’t help but fall deeper, tumbling through midair until you reach the bottom.
I awoke to the clucking of hens in the garden below the window in Eloise’s room, nearly forgetting where I was until I put two and two together. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and stretched widely in the large bed, my joints tender from all of the lifting and shuffling around I had done yesterday at the market. Once I managed to hoist myself out of the bed, I hobbled down the spiral staircase in discomfort. The lower half of the cottage smelled of syrup and scrambled eggs, my palette watering instantly as my stomach began to rumble loudly.
Aude was flitting to and fro in the cramped kitchen, cracking eggs against a large skillet and then whisking a bit of batter in a large mixing bowl. I stood back, watching her orchestrate the delicate symphony of cooking breakfast for three growing girls and an unexpected houseguest. I smiled in appreciation of all her hard work, the question of whether or not the food would taste good was completely out of my mind.
I crossed through the kitchen undetected before slipping out the door leading to the back yard. Assuming by the pastel hues still hanging in the sky, I figured I was definitely up earlier than Aude’s daughters on this particular morning.
The back yard was just as lush and full of life as the rest of the residence had proven to be – wild flowers and honeysuckle shot up in convenient little patches along the fence, morning glories were beginning to open up to greet the sun, and tiny blue jays twittered about in the trees, chatting happily amongst themselves. I couldn’t help but stare in amazement of the sheer beauty of the place, and found myself leaving the confines of the back yard to explore the land even further.
The trees that lined the path way were thick and full of twisting branches that I occasionally had to climb over and under to contune down the path. I was amazed by the many tones and shades and tints of green present in the vegetation around me, trying to soak up all the beauty before I forgot.
The pathway lead to a clearing in the woods, complete with a small babbling brook that was home to a few frogs humming sleepily. If I hadn’t still been wearing the pajamas Aude had let me borrow the night before, I would have laid flat on my stomach to observe the creatures mulling around the brook, but instead I just crouched low and dipped my hand in the cool running water. It was nice to feel so secluded from everything, especially since New York City is such an incredibly urbanized area to live in. In fact, I couldn’t actually remember the last time I saw running water that wasn’t going to a storm drain or running from a faucet. Living in the city can really dull your senses if you don’t get out enough, which, obviously, I never did.
I wandered back to the cottage as the sun was rising in the soft, dewy sky, my feet flaked with dirt and bits of grass from my adventure into the wilderness. I wiped them off on the mat sitting just in front of the back door before letting myself inside. Aude was setting the table in the kitchen when I entered and I nearly gave her a heart attack.
“Oh, my word!” She exclaimed, clutching a handful of napkins to her chest. “Where did you come from?!”
I laughed and apologized for frightening her, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you. I came down a bit earlier and you were busy making breakfast, so I just slipped out the back door and walked around for a while.
“I had no idea you were an early riser, otherwise I woulda made breakfast a lot sooner!”
“I don’t usually wake up this early, I just slept so well last night.” I smiled, noticing the thick stack of pancakes in the center of the table. “The food looks wonderful, Aude!”
I sat down at one end of the table just as the girls filed down the stairs, all wearing thick flannel dressing gowns and sporting some of the best bed head I had ever laid eyes on. Sophia dragged her stuffed bear along the ground as she climbed onto the seat next to mine. She yawned widely and pulled the stuffed bear into an embrace that looked like it could kill a grown man. I chuckled to myself before noticing Madeleine sitting on the opposite side of the table from Sophia, her head resting in the palms of her hands as she tried to keep herself from falling back into a deep slumber. The only daughter that wasn’t incredibly tired or about to fall asleep at her place setting, was Eloise. She was fussing with her ginger hair, trying to coax it into a tidy ponytail, but settling for a messy bun perched on the top of her head instead. Her emerald eyes lacked any trace of sleep and were shining and alert. She reached forward and helped herself to a pancake and a bit of scrambled eggs before pouring a bit of syrup on her plate.
She must have noticed that I was watching her closely because she looked up and scowled, forcing my eyes to dart around the room for safety. It was odd, because even though Eloise had seemed so nice to me in town yesterday, she was acting like a completely different person the next morning. Before I could dwell on it any longer, Aude insisted that I help myself as she took her seat next to Sophia, attempting to pry the stuffed bear from her iron grip.
There’s one thing and one thing only that could be said about Aude’s cooking, and it’s that it is the best. Seriously, I could have scarfed down pancakes all day if she had made that many! They were warm, soft, buttery, and completely perfect. Not to mention that the syrup accompanying them was homemade, but it acted as the perfect complement to the pancakes. I had about three before I remembered that I was a guest. Then I remembered that there were scrambled eggs and I helped myself to a couple of plates of those, too.
By the time I had finished eating, I was almost certain that the pajamas Aude had been kind enough to let me borrow were going to tear at the seams. I blinked slowly from the weight of my eyelids, almost regretting that last round of scrambled eggs.
“All right, so today is gonna be a little bit different than usual.” Aude began, taking a sip of some freshly squeezed orange juice. “El, you’re takin Henry out to fix him up with a quill. Sophia and Madeleine, ya’ll are gonna need to stick with me at the market today while they’re out. Now I’m serious when I say I want ya’ll to be mindful of the other merchants in the market! It’s not your playground and ya can’t just take whatever ya can grab, ya hear?”
Sophia and Madeleine nodded as they lazily shoveled eggs into their sleepy mouths.
“Anyway, I want you two to be careful as well. It’s gonna be a long day and ya gotta lot to do before sundown, so be mindful of the time. Henry, how much money d’ya got?” Aude asked.
I shook my head as I felt around for pockets in the pajamas, “None.”
Aude thought for a moment before speaking. “All right, that’s fine. Since ya helped out at the stand yesterday, I’m gonna let you keep the earnins’, seein as you’re gonna need it more than we will.”
“Oh, no! I couldn’t!” I started, feeling guilty that Aude was giving me her hard earned money.
She shook her head, smiling sweetly. “Don’t even worry about it, Henry. We can make twice as much today, and you need the money now so you can fix yourself up with a nice proper quill.”
It was strange how willing and ready Aude was to just include me as part of the family and hand me money. I appreciated everything she had done for me since I’d shown up in Vellum, but I didn’t want to be a burden on her family. I graciously accepted the money and made a mental note to somehow pay her back.
Once we had all finished our hearty breakfast and gotten changed into clean clothes, Eloise and I set out to get me a quill. The morning sun shone through her ginger locks as we followed the dirt road into town. It was quiet and peaceful as the gentle breeze slowly pushed the tall grass on either side of us.
“So, uh, Eloise?” I cautioned.
“What exactly do I have to do to get a quill? Is it difficult?”
She thought for a moment, probably deciding between whether or not to pull my leg or tell the truth. “Well, like I said, it’s definitely an arduous process. First we have to go into town and see Mr. Sunderton,” She noticed the confusion on my face. “He’s ancient, really. Like probably a hundred years old at least. Basically we have to go to him first because he’ll give us further instructions on getting your quill. Once we go to him, though, I’m not exactly sure what we have to do next, but it’ll probably take us a lot longer than a single day. That’s why I brought this.” She gestured to the large knapsack that was strapped to her back. “It’s got small tent and enough food for a few days, so hopefully we’ll be alright and we’ll have enough supplies to last us throughout the journey.”
“Wait, how long does it usually take to get a quill?” I asked, trying to mask the obvious tone of concern in my wavering voice.
“For me it took four days total, and that was when I was very little and my mom was helping me. Of course, she knew a whole lot more about the quill process than I did, so it’s understandable that I completed the journey in such a short time. Sophia and Madeleine took a little longer, but since I was able to help them out where I could, they only spent a week out. Although, I’ve heard stories where Sunderton’s given out these ridiculously long quests that last months and even years, so, like, who knows? We might get stuck with one of those.”
“What happens if we don’t have enough supplies? Do we just go back to the house and get more?”
Eloise laughed softly and shook her head, “No, that’s not allowed. You have to continue on from Sunderton’s with the items you show up with. Once you have the quest, you’re kind of forced to follow the instructions until you complete it. Most of the time you have a goal that you have to achieve, but sometimes it’s just really simple like going to the King and asking him for a small gift from his kingdom. It’s not very common that you’re sent to do something really crazy difficult, but it does happen on occasion. Sometimes, if the task at hand is too hard for someone to complete on their own or even with the help of a friend, a mentor will be assigned to you and you’ll be bring them along as the third party member.”
As I tried to soak up all of this brand new information, it dawned on me that I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Not only was I in this strange, new world, but I had just signed myself up for a freaking quest. Who would have thought that Henry Stylo, the twenty-five year old author with a bad case of writer’s block and an inability to sleep, would have ever volunteered to go on a quest for a stupid quill.
The gentle breeze had dwindled away as the sun rose higher in the sky. I could feel the rays of the sun beating down on my back through my thin shirt. I wondered how far away town was and even thought to ask Eloise when we would be arriving, but I decided against it. I didn’t want to let her know my weakness was the heat. I mean, if she heard me complaining about the sun, she’d probably call the whole thing off! She already thought I was a loser lacking any bit of common sense, so I was not going to give her anymore reasons to dislike me.
Even though it seemed like town was far away, it wasn’t too terribly far. Just as a few clouds began to move in front of the blazing hot sun, I could make out the outlines of buildings in the distance. I was incredibly relieved that we were almost there, I started walking with a bit more of pep in my step.
Mr. Sunderton’s shop was located in a part of town that wasn’t nearly as crowded as the market or the town square. It was a small shop in what appeared to be a back alley, squished between two large shops that were way too top heavy to be structurally sound. The shop itself was called The Plume, which I thought sounded very charming and interesting, noting that the cramped front windows were full of mystical looking things like feathers and what appeared to be ancient runes.
As we entered the small shop, an elaborate system of pulleys sprung to life and a string of tiny bells chimed happily. Before too long, a short, squat man came scurrying out of the back room carrying an armful of scrolls and a piece of toast in his mouth. We approached the counter as he set the scrolls down and finished off his toast, pushing the half-moon glasses up the bridge of his squashed nose. Mr. Sunderton was a man who looked older than he probably was, but that was all due to the fact that he didn’t have much hair on the top of his head, but the hair that he did have was grey and wispy. His hands flitted through the scrolls, turning them around in his nimble fingers before stacking them in a neat little pile at one end of the counter. He brushed the crumbs off of the counter and then off of his deep green waistcoat before looking up at us.
“Can I help you?” He asked politely, even though he knew very well why anyone came to his shop.
Eloise took the reigns, knowing that I had no idea what I was getting myself into, “He needs a quill, so we came to get a quest.” Her tone was calm but very strong, forceful even. She was determined to get her way.
Mr. Sunderton nodded, understanding of her request before speaking to me, “Do you understand what comes with this quest? What all it entails, young man?” I shook my head and his face went from cheery and youthful to worn and serious. “A quest is not to be taken lightly. Once you receive your quest, you must complete it. Many good men have had a difficult time completing their quests, but the true test is to remain sane.”
I swallowed hard, feeling the palms of my hands becoming clammy and moist. He stared into my eyes, searching for something – possibly trying to see what I was made of – before his face returned to the plump, cheery disposition that it wore before. “But, then again, it all depends on the quest you are given!” He laughed, his small frame bouncing lightly.
“So, uh… What happens next?” I asked cautiously as I tried to wipe off the moisture that had begun to pool in the palms of my hands.
Mr. Sunderton pulled turned around to the number of large leather-bound books that were stacked precariously behind him and gently tugged on one sitting near the top of the pile. The book came loose and, amazingly, the rest of the books remained in their stacks without toppling over. He spun around, the book itself looked like it was about half his size, and he sat it down on the counter. He opened it, the pages yellowed with age, and he turned to a page near the back. There were many names scrawled out in different color inks – red, blue, green, purple, pink. The page was like a work of art that ought to be preserved in a museum with the various signatures that sat coiled on the yellow paper.
Explaining that everyone who took part in a quest must sign their name in the book, Mr. Sunderton smiled a wicked little grin and handed me a large green quill, presumably his own. The quill was quite heavy in my hand, which only added to the regality of it all. I carefully scrawled my signature at the bottom of the page, the bright green ink shining brightly in the rather dimly lit shop. Mr. Sunderton pulled the book back toward him, pocketed the quill, and folded his hands neatly on the counter.
“Wonderful. Now the fun begins.” His smile widened and my stomach felt queasy. I glanced over at Eloise but her expression was the same as always – calm and reserved, with a hint of ferocity displayed in the way her brow was furrowed and her jaw was locked. I wondered what she was thinking and whether or not things were going accordingly. Surely this was pretty standard fare? Of course, when Eloise had gotten her quill she was very young and with her mother, so maybe she didn’t even really remember what the process should be like.
I began to wonder whether or not Mr. Sunderton was very old or not, and then I almost thought to ask him. I caught myself just as the question was rising to the back of my throat, stopping only because he had returned the large book of signatures to the teetering stack of other ancient-looking books and was now rifling through a drawer. The drawer appeared to be filled with pieces of parchment wrapped in thin strips of twine, but I also noticed the odd envelope bearing a wax seal on the back. Mr. Sunderton reached all the way in the back of the drawer and extracted a dark green square envelope, sealed with a black wax seal. He closed the drawer quickly and turned around, holding up the envelope with such care, you might think he were in possession of a newborn child.
Eloise’s eyes widened at the sight of the green envelope and sweat began to coat my palms. I studied the look on her face for a few moments before determining that it was not a particularly good look for such a strong girl like her to wear. I looked back at Mr. Sunderton, who was now writing my name on the front of the envelope in shimmery golden ink. He looked up with that same wicked smile as he slid the envelope to me across the counter. For a moment, as I held the envelope in my hands, I knew how Pandora must have felt when she came across her box.