The Impossible Children

Chapter 18: Stories from Another World

Annabelle knew it was late morning, yet the sun’s rays were absent, shrouded by the power that lived in the upper levels of the Tower.

It had been many weeks since she’d first arrived at the White Tower, and she was just beginning to feel used to the place.

She had wakened hours earlier in order to make progress with Foundations. As was now her usual custom, she’d walked down to the dining hall and spread out her books until they resembled a nest.

Translating glyphs and interpreting them was difficult work, almost dull and seemingly without end, but Annabelle kept at it with a persistence she’d never shown at school. There were things she liked about glyphs and things she didn’t like. The language seemed to have no inflected forms: no noun declensions, no gendered forms, no verb conjugations, no voicing or tenses of any kind. It was wholly unlike any language she had encountered, written or spoken.

But it was difficult to make sense of it. The same collection of glyphs ordered in the same way seemed to have a different meaning depending on this or that context that she could not fathom overall. It was maddening, yet also somehow motivating. It was a puzzle she wanted to solve more and more as the weeks went by.

In truth, life at the Tower was a mixture of both wonder and misery.

Jenny especially was a demanding teacher. Every week, Jenny would ask Annabelle to come to her study, and she would ask about Annabelle’s studies. Annabelle would fumble through this, speaking either too slowly or too quickly. Jenny was quick to make sure that Annabelle enunciated her words clearly.

During this time Jenny would ask questions that Annabelle would have no answers to. Jenny would only click her tongue in disappointment and continue on with a different question. Annabelle felt like she was taking a test but not being given any marks. And after the end of each session, Jenny would give Annabelle a new stack of books to read by the next week, with Annabelle often not having finished the previous week’s books.

On the whole, Annabelle loved the Tower and the people in it. She enjoyed reading everything she could get her hands on, despite the difficulty in understanding glyphs. The dining hall had become her usual place of study.

Sometimes Seppo would come by and help her with a difficult glyph, which Annabelle appreciated. On some days, Charlie would keep her company and tell stories about her old life before the Tower. Apparently, she had been a street thief, a pickpocket of sorts, which Annabelle could both believe yet also felt were too farfetched at the same time.

Cid was getting steadily getting better. He woke up several times a day, and Seppo would visit and speak with him in a low voice. Annabelle could never hear what they were saying when she passed by the infirmary, but she could tell there was great warmth between the two.

And of course everyone would gather in the dining hall for dinner. Depending on who was in charge of cooking that night, this was something Annabelle looked forward to or dreaded in equal measure. Seppo made passable meals, while Jenny was a master with her stews. Yet both Amelia and Charlie did not seem to possess any sort of instinct for cooking at all.

Yet though the meals varied in quality, the company was good and cheerful. Charlie would always spin a yarn or two, while Percy spoke of this or that game he’d hunted in the forest. Amelia would excitedly interrupt them both to tell Annabelle what she’d been up to, usually flying around the Tower and playing games when she should have been studying.

Seppo was mostly silent, of course. Jenny, to Annabelle’s surprise, sometimes asked her about her day. Not in the way of a teacher to her student, but more out of curiosity and concern. Annabelle appreciated them all.

But in the quiet moments by herself, Annabelle missed home terribly. She missed her father especially, who’d passed only a year before. She couldn’t help but think of him as she pored over the old books. She even thought about her mother on some occasions with unexpected affection.

Annabelle thought about her sister Grace the most though and constantly, playing that terrible moment when she lost her over and over again in her mind, wondering what she could have done differently. It was during these days that she had the most difficulty studying.

Annabelle sighed and put down her pen, standing to her feet and stretching out her back. This was usually the time that she stopped studying and explored the Tower instead. She would climb the stairs, up and down, and wonder if the Tower would allow her to see something new that day.

Sometimes Annabelle found a hidden nook or undiscovered room that she hadn’t seen before. But most times she browsed through the books and struggled to read them from her own limited knowledge of the glyphs.

It was that day then that her patience, or rather her constancy, was rewarded.

Annabelle climbed the night-darkened steps, careful to let the lamp in her hands cast its glow well in front of her. She did not much like the idea of her feet slipping on her robes and falling down all that way.

She had lately taken to wearing robes, mostly because she’d begun to feel out of place. Even Charlie wore robes around the Tower, violet with a slimming waist. Only Percy and Seppo alway seemed to forgo robes and wear their clothes from a bygone time. Percy like a knight from Arthur’s round table; and Seppo like some huntsman of old.

Her own robes were simple white cloth, though she wasn’t sure what it was made of. They were comfortable certainly, but she often had to wear her cardigan over them to ward off the chill. Annabelle always managed to dirty her robes with dust or ink or whatever. And after a while it did not seem so odd.

Suddenly, her attention was caught. She often ran a stray hand against the shelves to feel the books beneath her fingers. Today was no different, except in one respect. Instead of the leather bound tomes she was expecting, her hand came upon a cover of wrapped linen. Pulling the book down from the shelf, she gasped as she recognized the embossed letters.

It was an old, tattered copy of Bulfinch’s Mythology.

Normally, Annabelle was careful to turn the pages of each book quite slowly, fearful of tearing the old and delicate paper. Here now in this moment, she flipped rapidly through the pages and saw familiar letters. It was written in English!

She devoured the words as quickly as she could. It had been almost a lifetime ago since she had read English words other than the ones she wrote with her own hand. Quickly, she noted many differences from what she was used to.

For a start, the book was handwritten! She remembered Bulfinch’s Mythology in her father’s library, and that copy had been printed. Everything in the Tower seemed to be written by hand as far as she could tell. The penmanship was smooth and flowing, much more elegant than her own scrawling script. There wasn’t even a table of contents or an author’s preface, the first page just began.

Much like the Bulfinch’s she remembered, this was a book of stories. But this was not a book of Greek and Roman mythology or Arthurian legends. The names of the heroes were strange and unfamiliar. She had never read these stories before. A thought came to mind, and she leaped upon it.

These were stories from another world.

“What have you got there!” said a voice from behind her.

Annabelle could never get used to Amelia flying up behind her, and she jumped in fright for what seemed like the twentieth time. Calming her beating heart, Annabelle said to the younger girl, “A book of stories, I think. Have you seen this before? Do you know where it came from?”

Annabelle actually wondered where all of the books within the Tower had come from. She couldn’t imagine that they were all written by the same person. Some of them must have come from outside the Tower, collected and brought back in some way.

Amelia gave the book a quick glance and shook her head. She did not seem very much interested. “No, I don’t think so. But Jenny would know, I’m sure.” Then, she flew off and away, as was her wont.

Annabelle shook her head in exasperation. Amelia had almost become her bunkmate. Annabelle always found Amelia in her room when she awoke. She did not think the minded, but the younger girl often took most of the sheets with her, and the Tower was chilly at night.

Still, Amelia meant well enough, Annabelle thought. She was often helpful, if a little capricious, and knew many glyphs from memory. Amelia could translate them with ease, which Annabelle used to her advantage, if she could keep the other girl still enough to speak.

Turning back to the cover, Annabelle saw something she had missed before in her excitement. The letters were embossed in thread, but the name Bulfinch had been crossed out by a sharp knife. Perhaps someone had taken the cover and written their own stories inside? That was possible, she supposed. Perhaps one of the others might have written it?

Annabelle thought about whether to ask Jenny about the book. She wanted to know more, but she didn’t know if Jenny would take the book away. She seemed so strict and severe that Annabelle thought that likely. Perhaps Charlie would know, or Seppo?

Tucking the book under her arm, Annabelle walked back downstairs to the dining hall to begin preparing a late breakfast for the rest of the Tower.

#

Annabelle ate breakfast alone that morning, though she did not mind too much for she had her new book to distract her. She had taken to calling it Not Bulfinch’s Mythology in her own head. She flipped the pages with rapt attention as she ate a bowl of oats and whey topped with fresh fruit and cream. Seppo had apparently dropped off a bottle of cream that very morning, though she hadn’t seen him sneak in either.

The first story was about a girl named Raethusa who climbed the stars all the way to Morning and delivered a message for the Morning-Queen. She had been expecting the same dry, academic prose of the Bulfinch’s she was familiar with, but the book she now read was far more interested in telling a story. Annabelle could almost hear the drumbeats of thunder and the voice of the narrator speaking directly to her as Raethusa captured lightning in a bottle and used it to vanquish an angry giant.

Something in her awoke as Annabelle read the story. It had been many long weeks since the days when she curled next to the fire in her father’s armchair with a good book resting on her lap. For the past few weeks, the only books she read were primers and manuals and great big tomes. In other words, books focused on her studies. She did not know how much she missed actually reading a book for the fun of reading until it was gone.

Quite suddenly, hot tears fell down her cheeks. Her eyes burned, and she felt the urgent need to let out a sob. Feeling embarrassed, Annabelle wiped her eyes and hoped no one had seen her cry. She breathed in a ragged breath, then two, steadying herself until she trusted herself not to cry again.

Charlie opened the door to the dining hall and waved hello. Annabelle thought she saw the other girl tense upon seeing her face, and she realized that her face must be red from crying. Still, Annabelle smiled at Charlie and waved back.

“You’re late,” Annabelle said. She was rather more short than she had wished to be. Clearing her throat, she waved her hands at the oats she had cooked. “They’re not warm anymore, but you’re welcome to it, if you like.”

Charlie sat down and pulled a bowl and spoon toward herself. Rather than eat, however, she looked at Annabelle with a look of concern.

Annabelle knew what Charlie was about to say, and she suddenly didn’t want to talk about it or to explain that she was fine and didn’t want her pity or whatever it was that was on her face plain to see. So instead, Annabelle said, “Look at this book I found!”

She heard the falseness in her voice, and she suspected that Charlie did as well, but she didn’t care.

Charlie took the book and opened it. “Oh, it’s in English. That’s a lucky find. What’s it about?”

And so Annabelle explained Bulfinch’s Mythology and how this wasn’t that exactly but more of a collection of stories, and how she was just about getting into them. “I wonder who wrote them?” Annabelle said at the end of it.

Tapping her chin, Charlie said, “I suppose it might have been an earlier magi. Someone who lived here before we did.”

Annabelle frowned. “How many people have lived here? In the Tower, I mean?”

“Oh, hundreds, maybe even thousands, I’m sure,” said Charlie.

Annabelle supposed it was possible. “Do you think that these stories are just stories or are they based on the things that magi can do?”

Charlie tilted her head to the side. “How do you mean?”

Annabelle shrugged. “Well, I mean, you can conjure fire. There are all sorts of stories and fables and myths about that sort of thing. Maybe the stories across the countless worlds are based on someone who could do that very thing. Conjure fire, I mean.”

“Oh, I see,” said Charlie. She nodded. “Yes, I think that must have happened at some point. I tell stories all the time.”

Annabelle glanced down at the pages of Not Bulfinch’s Mythology. “Do you think someone can catch lightning in a bottle, for example?”

“I don’t know,” said Charlie. She shrugged. “I’ve never done anything like that, but I don’t see why it can’t be done. Why not?”

Why not indeed? Annabelle didn’t yet have the tools to do what she wanted, but she was beginning to dare to dream of the impossible.