Owen came in to the small bedroom, his face covered in ash and grime. Erin looked up from the book she was reading.
“Any luck?” she said.
He shook his head. “Almost all the paper burned. Only the items in metal boxes were saved.”
“I’m so sorry,” Erin said, her eyes burning with unspent tears. “If you hadn’t had to help me, you could have-“
“Now then,” Owen said sternly. “Let’s have none of that.” He sat on the end of the bed, which creaked alarmingly, and stroked her legs through the covers. “You’re always my top priority. Both of you. There’s nothing been done out there that can’t be undone with a little effort.”
“It won’t be by us though, will it?” she said, the tears now rolling down her cheeks. “We’re off the teams for at least a year while our child is growing.”
He smiled, and she marvelled how calm and assured he looked despite the destruction of all their efforts for most of the past year. “Perhaps a fresh set of eyes will find even more.”
“And maybe we’ll never recover some of the texts. How many of them were the only copy?”
Owen stood and moved to the head of the bed. “Have you had any more pains?”
“No,” Erin said, struggling to sit up. “I think it was… a warning, perhaps.”
“I see you found a book to read.”
The book was lying next to Erin, still open at the page she had been reading. Owen reached over and picked it up, examining the spine. It was a leather-bound book with a red cover and gold lettering.
“This is… this is the book that the farmer’s daughter was reading,” he said. “How did you find it?”
“It was under the pillow,” Erin replied. “I thought you put it there.” She bit her lip. “There’s… it’s odd, Owen. I don’t like it. When I read the book, it’s as though the voice in my head belongs to a man. I think the little girl was right.”
“That the author of this book was reading her a story? But that’s impossible.”
“What am I listening for?” Owen said, turning the book over.
“If I tell you, it might affect what you hear. Try it,” she urged.
Erin watched as Owen flipped to the front of the book and began to read. Normally, she knew, he would have a quill in one hand, ink to one side, and the blank book into which the manuscript would be copied in front of him. Reclamation teams were trained in holding the words in their heads only as long as it took to write them down, managing to keep the words neat and tidy despite not looking at where they were being written. This way, whole books could be copied down in a sort of trance state. Breaking the words down into just characters for the hand to automatically copy, keeping lines straight and correctly forming letters; these skills took years to master properly and only the best were sent out on reclamations.
It was rare for teams to sit and read a book merely for fun or interest, as so much of their lives were taken up with books anyway. Owen and her had developed quite the taste for badminton using a net that could be strung between the wagon and a tree just about anywhere. It was so completely different from books as to make life interesting.
But now she was able to watch Owen’s face slowly change as he settled in to reading the first page. His sooty fingers left marks on the covers of the book, but he seemed not to notice. The first two paragraphs were inconsequential, she knew, and the strange effect of having the reading voice in her head become that of a middle-aged man hadn’t begun until after that.
Several pages later, Owen seemed to snap out of whatever he had been doing. “That’s… what was that?”
“You heard a man, in his middle ages, yes? A low voice, perhaps a bit of a burr to it like you get when you smoke a lot?”
“Yes,” Owen said. “He pronounced his r’s with a roll.”
“The same voice.”
“I’ll ask Mead about this.”
Erin frowned, then swung her legs out from under the coverlet. She was still dressed in her trousers and shirt, not even having had time to take anything off before Owen had deposited her on the bed. “I’m coming too.”
“Oh no you’re not,” Owen said. “You’re staying right there.”
“Owen Hazzard, you listen to me,” Erin snapped. “I’m fine right now; mayhap I wasn’t before but I am now. And I don’t trust Mead. He was in on what they did to our wagon.”
“He was out there, smiling. Looked mighty satisfied with himself,” Erin said as she pulled socks and sturdy boots on. “Like he’d planned it all along.”
“Why would he do something like that? He’s been nothing but kind to us since we got here.”
“I don’t know.” She sighed. “Maybe the townsfolk got to him. Told him that he shouldn’t help us; he’s not from here originally, is he? He came here from outside.”
“And the books?”
Mead was in the kitchen baking bread when Erin and Owen walked in. He looked up almost immediately.
“Ah, you’re recovered,” he said with a smile. “Good to see!”
“Mead, we need to talk,” Owen said. Mead’s face fell as he continued to knead the dough.
“Ahh, t’was sad what happened to your wagon. And you nearly done as well, I hear.”
Erin could hold it in no longer. “Why did you do it, Mead? Why did you let them burn our things?”
The kneading slowed, Mead not making eye contact with them. “How d’you mean?”
“Erin says she saw you jus’ letting it happen,” Owen said. “Do you have any idea how long it took us to gather those papers?”
Mead’s kneading picked up speed again. “Well, p’raps you shouldn’t be gathering them at all,” he said. “People round her don’t take kindly to having their ancestors stolen.”
“How d’you mean?” Owen said.
“Can’t say I see it myself,” Mead said, “but they believe round here that the books carry the souls of the townsfolk who’ve passed away. More than that. That the books actually are the people.”
“Like the people become to books, Erin said in a whisper. “And they tell their stories whenever someone reads them. That’s why the farmer’s daughter could read the book. It was like some sort of… oral book.”
“And your copies are soulless,” Mead said, real iron entering his voice. “They’re an abomination. The people of this town have a good thing going, and you’re not going to ruin it.”
“But this is spectacular,” Owen said. “We must know the way it’s done! Think of the use for the world at large. Literacy on a vast scale; everyone able to write their own book on their deathbed, effectively. How many times have great works of literature been lost to the world because the person with the idea lacked the resources or the training to write it down?”
But Mead was shaking his head. “The secret will never leave here,” he said, “for the simple reason that it won’t work anywhere else. This town is special.” He put the dough on a baking tray and dusted his hands off. “And now it’s time for you to go. Admit defeat. Strike this town from your maps. Your ways are not the ways of this town, and your Church, with its soulless depository of empty books, will always be the lesser power.”
Erin clutched at Owen’s arm. “We should do as he says,” she muttered. Owen shook his arm free.
“I’m not going back without a sample,” he said, only a slight quiver in his voice betraying how afraid he was. “This is something never before seen.”
“You will not get one,” Mead said. “Leave. Before the townsfolk do something you might regret.”
“Owen!” Erin said urgently. “Let’s go!”
“What, will the whole town rise against us?”
“They already want you out. Have you not realised that yet?” Mead began to advance and Erin half-pulled Owen away and out into the common area. “As soon as they realised what you were doing, unrest began to spread. I tried to calm them, but they threatened me. So now I’m threatening you. Yes, they’re prepared to kill to hide their secret, and they will rise against you if you try to take their books.”
He passed the bar, Erin and Owen still retreating before him, and picked up a meat knife from the wooden top. “Now go,” he said, still advancing.
Owen turned and, ushering Erin ahead of him, moved towards the door. They burst out into the town square and stopped short.
Every town resident must have been there, over a hundred in all. Some held a variety of weapons, others holding books close to their chests.
“Too late,” Mead’s voice came from behind, and as Erin turned around she saw the tip of Mead’s knife appear out of Owen’s chest. Blood sprayed out, darkening the ground, and Owen clutched at the knife blade even as it cut his fingers. Erin screamed and backed away.
“I guess you’re getting your sample after all,” Mead said, his eyes dark. The townsfolk were completely silent, adding to the surreality of the moment.
Owen was on his knees, still clutching at the knife. He stopped, his expression slackening, and Erin fell to her knees next to him. His lips moved, and she moved closer, supporting him on her knees as his strength left him.
“Take care of… our child,” he said, and then his eyes went glassy. His body spasmed a final time and then was still.
Only the sound of Erin’s weeping, echoing off the buildings in the square, filled the silence. Then she became aware of a small sound, like a high-pitched and complicated birdsong, and she sat up. Through the blur of tears she saw a light gathering at Owen’s feet, and then beginning to move up his body. As the light passed his ankles she saw that his feet were gone, and she shrieked, scuttling away from him.
The light continued up his body, erasing him from existence, taking his clothes with him. The knife was absorbed into the light, which continued to grow in intensity, and then the light reached his head. It grew to a blinding intensity and, as Erin shielded her eyes, there was a silent explosion of light and wind. Then it was gone.
The townsfolk began to walk away, still silent. Mead went inside. Erin was left alone, blood staining her shirt, to pick up the small object left on the ground where a moment ago her husband had lay dying. It was a book.
The book was green, leather-bound, not too thick. She opened it and began to read.
“Tales for small children,” it said, “By Owen Hazzard”.
Erin clutched the book to her chest and wept.