Four days went by, four long and difficult days. Erin found herself spending more time at the copying desk than she had at any of the other places they had visited, for more often than not she was able to employ someone local to help. As well as the many dozens of books in the town, each house was also home to a variety of pamphlets and scraps of paper. When asked about these, the townsfolk were noncommittal; travellers had left them and they had been saved in case they were useful. One house they had visited that very afternoon had belonged to a particularly old man. He had welcomed them in when Mead had explained why they were there. They discovered that the house contained a small metal box literally filled with small scraps of paper, none bigger than Erin’s hand, each covered in what appeared to be random scrawlings. To even get to the box, the man had dragged a piece of furniture away from a wall to reveal a hidden compartment, and the dust on the box had been years deep.
“Can I take these?” she had asked, but the man had bristled at the very idea and it was only after Mead had talked him down that he was willing to let her copy them. That afternoon had felt very defeating, as Erin had painstakingly copied out the apparently random scribbles into a larger tome. The old man had watched and, as soon as she finished copying one out, had snatched it back and carefully laid it in the box.
Erin thought back over this as she lay in her bed, relaxing in the warmth of Owen’s arms. They had pushed the twin beds together and, despite the gap in the middle, were able to at least be near to each other.
“Owen,” she began. “The old man, yesterday.”
“Crotchety git, wasn’t he?”
She elbowed him slightly. “Not that. He was strange, with those writings. Or scribbles. Whichever.”
Shifting slightly to be comfortable, Erin said “You weren’t around to see it all. I think you’d gone to the farmer’s house by then. It got… weird, I guess. He sat and watch me copy every one, then put it away in the box. Individually. And so carefully, like it was special. Holy.”
Owen stroked her belly. “Well, it is special. It is holy; we’re part of the Church too, remember?” Slight amusement came through in his voice.
“That’s not what I meant. I mean it was like… we take normal precautions with books. We take care of them. But this was extreme.” She rolled over and sat up, shaking his arm off. “These scribbles were meaningless, I’m almost sure. And he wasn’t saving them to read or look at; they came out of a box that hadn’t been touched or even looked at in years!”
“So he’s a little bit crazy about his paper.” Owen sighed and turned onto his back. “Odd you should mention it though. I guess, at the farmhouse, they were treating their books a little strangely. Or at least, the youngest child was.”
“None of the townsfolk can read, right?”
“Except Mead,” Erin said.
“Right. So the youngest daughter at the farmhouse, couldn’t be more than five, is a little blonde beauty with a blue dress, and she’s sat in front of the fire.”
“Well,” Owen said, “I’m coming in from the outhouse, where I’d like to point out there was no paper. In fact, I’m amazed that this town of illiterates aren’t just using the books to clean themselves. But I digress.
“I come in, and the girl’s sat with a book across her knees. It’s close-written, quite thick, no pictures. She’s turning the pages in about the same amount of time it might take, say, an adult to read it out. I watch her for a few minutes.
“She looks up, sees me. I smiled and said ‘So what’re you doing?’ She says ‘Jeremiah’s reading me a story.’ I say ‘Is Jeremiah your friend?’ and she gives me this dirty look and shakes her head. ‘Are you looking at the pictures?’ I say, trying again, but she just looks at me like I’m stupid and says ‘Why would I do that? Pictures can’t tell me the story.’
“Well, at that moment her father came in and she carefully closed the book and put it back on the shelf. I took it down and opened it as soon as her back was turned. It was ‘A Treatise on Mountain Goats’ by one Jeremiah T. Willikins.”
“So the little girl can read?” Erin said, rolling over onto her side. She smiled, but when she saw the expression on Owen’s face she felt it slip.
“No,” he said, “she can’t. None of them can; her father was most insistent.”
“So they’re lying. They can read.”
“I don’t know.” He yawned. “There’s a lot to do tomorrow and the quicker it’s done, the quicker we can head back to civilisation. Away from people who can’t read and treat paper like it’s gold.”
“Not the paper, I think,” Erin murmured. “The writing.” She closed her eyes and was almost immediately asleep.
Mead put the earthenware coffeepot down on the table between the two breakfast plates. “Will there be anything else?” he said, dusting his hands off.
“Actually, yes,” Erin said, cutting Owen off before he could do much more than raise his head. “There’s a young girl out at the farmhouse. Can she read?”
Mead cocked his head curiously. “No,” he said, “I told you no-one could read. Only me.”
“Don’t truly know,” Mead said. “There’s a superstition about it, I suppose.”
“Has anyone ever tried to learn?” Owen said.
“Not that I know.”
He was cut off by a shout from outside, and a crash. Erin struggled to her feet.
“The wagon!” she said, and started for the door. Owen, only a second behind her, was already taking his jacket off.
Outside, the scene was chaos. Five of the townsfolk had gathered around the wagon and a sixth was on top; it was the farmer, Erin noted, his rough homespun clothes askew as if he had dressed in a hurry. He had an enormous ginger beard and his arms were easily as thick around as her thighs.
“Stop!” she cried, coming to a halt a few feet away from the wagon. The townsfolk were tearing handfuls of books and papers out from under the canvas and throwing them to the winds, and as she looked around Erin realised that paper was strewn all over the yard. She saw the old man whose paper she had copied yesterday pulling out books left and right as if looking for something; a young girl, couldn’t be more than five, gleefully pulling pages out from a tome; a woman, floury apron kicking up clouds of dust as she stamped on several scrolls of maps from northern Dorth, and a pair of what appeared to be identical twin young men who were busy trying to undo the fastenings on the canvas.
“Please!” she screamed, and then Owen was among them, pulling an old man off balance, tearing the book away from the girl and shoving the woman aside. Then he jumped onto the driving platform and faced the farmer.
“Why are you doing this?” he shouted. “We came in peace; we were welcomed into your homes!”
“You profane the memories of those what have died,” the farmer replied. “The books, they…” he stopped, glowering, and put his hand behind his back. When he drew it out, he was holding a knife that was easily as long as his forearm. “We will take them back. The words. The people. The memories. All of it!” He stabbed down onto the canvas and tore a huge hole in it, causing papers to flutter every which way.
Erin cried out as he knees gave way; a deep pain came from within her and, as the papers flew all around like the first snows of winter, she knew that something was deeply wrong both in the town and inside her body. Owen, hearing her cry, turned and jumped down from the wagon. As she crumpled to the ground, he caught her under the arms.
Owen clutched Erin to his chest. “Are you ok?”
“The baby,” she murmured. “Something… it might be coming and- oh!” A lance of pain ripped through her from stomach to chest.
Sheer panic painted his face. “What do I do?”
“I don’t know!” Erin panted. “There’s…”
The sound of a flame igniting, that unmistakeable whoosh, caused them both to look in the direction of the wagon. The old man had brought out a torch from somewhere, a stick wrapped in oil-soaked cloth, and the twins had lit it with a fancy automatic flint-and-steel. The flames, even in the morning light, cast a hellish glow on everyone’s face. Owen clutched his wife tighter to him, powerless to watch as the old man passed the torch to the little girl. She curtsied, absurdly polite, and then moved towards the wagon. The farmer jumped down to stand next to her, then picked her up tenderly and placed her on his shoulders.
With a yell, she threw the torch directly onto the slit that he had cut. The papers in the wagon caught light almost immediately, the conflagration growing in mere seconds. The smell of burning paper filled the air and ash began to stream off of the wagon. Erin, tears streaming down her face, felt a part of herself burning up, shrivelling, turning to ash in concert with the wagon. She looked to the side to see the broad form of Mead. He was staring at the scene, but it wasn’t anger, fear or worry on his face.
It was satisfaction.