It started out innocently enough. We decided to go out camping at the Ringgelf forest that spring break. Peter Simon wanted to go out and do some sketches and landscapes there, and the rest of us wanted to do some hiking, rock-climbing, and canoeing. We’d probably be able to talk Peter into coming along with us sometimes, but he’d still be sure to come home with a notebook full of sketches, and maybe a water-color or two by the time we came back.
And of course, the rest of our group went with him. Jessica Thain, who was as thin and wispy as a cobweb. It always surprised people when they realized just how strong and capable she really was. And she frequently took advantage of the fact. But wherever Peter went, Jessica would be near-by. And vice versa. It was rather cute, sometimes, at least when it wasn’t annoying.
And then there was Andrea Simon, Peter’s sister. She was a couple years older than the rest of us, and frequently came along to keep us out of trouble. She was tall, dark haired, and seemed no-nonsense, but also had a strong sense of fun. And you’ve never lived until you tasted one of her stews.
Then there was Tomlin Caston. We didn’t know him as well, since the rest of us had met in grade school, and he only came along in the last year or so that we’d started attending the Library. He seemed a nice enough fellow, and he had the most gorgeous red hair. So, none of us raised any objections when he wanted to come camping with us.
And finally, there was my brother Jasin, and me, An Smyth. Jasin’s a couple of years younger than us, but tended to tag along. He’d been finding more of his own fun once he enrolled in the Library, but didn’t have anything better to do that spring break, and so came along.
The Ringgelf Forest had long ago been set up as parks, crown land not belonging to any chantle. Centuries ago, only the High Kings and chantle kings could enter it, but now it was open to everyone, if you obeyed the rules, of course.
Jessica, as was her wont, made sure everything was organized. She had us all packed and the van ready to go faster than any of us would have dreamed possible. And, unlike me, she had everything we needed ready, and packed compactly into the van. I’d have had twice of what we needed of some things, and forgotten others. But she was always prepared with a checklist, of everything that we would need, could need, or might want, and stuck to it, and made the rest of stick to it with a draconian tenacity.
The two hour trip from the Library at Haranbeth to Ringgelf Forest passed quicker than it might (and not just due to Peter’s driving, either). We’d all brought along something to do, read, or a game to play. Jessica beat Tomlin and Andrea at Alphabet Bingo three times running, after which Tomlin gave up and went to reading in disgust. I read most of the way, while Jasin went right to sleep, and didn’t wake up until we pulled into the campground. He’s always been able to do that. It’s really most annoying. Especially since he snores.
We passed the gilded statue of a rearing unicorn that stood guarding the east gate to the entrance of the Ringgelf Forest. Long, long ago, the legend says, the Ringgelf Forest was the center of the unicorn lands. They inhabited the forest, and fought long, bitter, wars with the chantle kings to keep the land theirs. But then they left, no one knows where. The chantle kings didn’t dare come in and claim the land, out of fear that the unicorns would suddenly return, and so it eventually became a park. Or so the story went anyway. No one believed in unicorns anymore, of course. Or admitted it if they did. The records of the last unicorn wars are over a thousand years old. most of them unreadable.
But the legends persist, so the unicorn has become the symbol of the Ringgelf Forest. Each of the five main gates is guarded by a different colored unicorn statue in a different pose. There are unicorn posters and statuettes for sale at all the gift shops. All the little inns, and most of the restaurants, both in and near the park, have some sort of unicorn theme. In fact, about the only way to get away from the unicorns was to go out into the forest itself. Funny, though, the unicorns pictured were all beautiful unicorns, or cute and cuddly unicorns, not the fierce warriors who had for millennia had managed to keep armies armed with bow and sword and siege engines from from invading their forest. That part of the legend seemed to be forgotten.
We got to the campground, and set up in our favorite area. We could see and hear the small river going by, and various canoeing groups going down it. There was a decent sized gravel and rock beach right there, and some canoeing groups would stop there for lunch and swimming, but the banks rose about six feet after that, so there was little danger of the river rising and flooding the campground. I think that’s happened twice in the past 50 years. Of course, during spring break, there wouldn’t be that many canoers stopping to swim. That’d happen later in the summer, but now the water was still too cold. The most they would do is wade a few steps to get the canoe moving.
Thanks to Jessica’s organization, we got the three tents up, and the whole came set up in less than an hour, and Andrea shooed us out to have fun while she made lunch. Just like none of us questioned Jessica’s organization, no one questioned Andrea’s cooking, so we all “shooed” willingly.
Jasin and I wandered down by the river, where we took turns skipping stones across it’s surface. Tomlin wandered that way also, but sat on the steps and desultorarily dug at the bank with a stick. Peter had set up an easel back at the campground, and was painting the light on the river. I don’t know for sure where Jessica got to, though I think she was helping Andrea cook lunch.
It was more crowded in the camping ground than it had been for past trips. Spring break often was crowded, especially when it was nice weather such as this, and for some reason the calendar this year had most of the Libraries in Tel on break at the same time. Usually there was more of a spread. And those who couldn’t afford to go to the south of Notor, or other semi-tropical parts, either went home, or found places like the Ringgelf Forest to hang out.
Of course, even with the campground mostly full, the full electric, water, and sewer sites went first, and our no frills tent sites were spacious enough. I’ve always wondered though, why they put the no-frills tent sites the farthest from the rest rooms, and the self-contained units right next to them.
Of course, with Andrea cooking for us, you couldn’t say we were roughing it. Even with just a cook-stove, she could turn out meals fit for a king. Or queen, as the case might be. She already had planned to start a line of restaurants, some day. Even as a student, she ran her own small catering service, with enough of a client list that she could pick and choose which engagements to take. Andrea was probably the most practical of all of us, at that point.
I had just gotten a lucky throw of five skips (beating Jasin, who’d not been able to get more than four today) when Tomlin called out, “Hey, An, Jas, look at this!”
We turned, and looked. Tomlin was holding up a rather cruddy looking chain, with mud and leaf mould and moss still attached.
“What have you got there, Tom?” Jasin asked, reaching out for it.
“Don’t know, exactly,” Tomlin said, holding it out for inspection. ” dug it out of the bark here. It wasn’t buried very deep, but I think it’d been there a long time.”
We each took a turn holding it. “It’s heaver than it looks, ” I said. “I’ll try rinsing it in the creek, see what happens.” I took it down to the riverside, and rinsed it out as best I could. The worst of the dirt and mould came off where I rubbed it, but it was still not shiny, and a bit grubby, when I brought it back.
It was obviously meant as a necklace, though it’d have to be much cleaner before I had any temptation to slip it around my neck. The links were rather large and thick, moreso than I was used to seeing, but not thick enough that they would be uncomfortable to wear. There was a pendant hanging on it, about twice as big around as a marklet coin, flat and round. I squinted at it. “I think it looks like a unicorn head,” I said. barely able to make e it out through the dirt that still clung to it. “What do you think?” I handed it back to Tomlin, who reluctantly took the back the wet chain. Jasin peered over his shoulder.
“Definitely a unicorn head,'” Jasin said. “Probably came from one of those gift shops a couple years ago.”
“Nah, it’s got to be older than that,” Tomlin disagreed. “Maybe ten, twenty years ago. At least.”
“Maybe,” I said, “But probably one of the really fancy, expensive gift shops. Most of the souvenir necklaces would have disappeared and broken, buried like that for any length of time. There’d hardly be enough of them left in one pieces to dig up.”
What’s on the other side of it?” Jasin asked. “Maybe there’s a date. Copyright, tradermark, something.”
Tomlin flipped it over. But instead of the blank, or nearly blank, face we were half expecting, there was an image of a unicorn horn on the top, two cups on the right side, and a couple of other items we could not make out on the left side and bottom. In the center was a swirling flower image.
“I recognize that center image,” I said sudden, taking it back from Tomlin. “That’s the emblem of the five chantle alliance. Each of the petals represented one of the chantles. It was usually colored, though.”
“One of your history lessons?” Jasin asked, interested.
“No, something I saw in Grandmother’s papers,” I said, absently.
“Thing is, though,” I continued, trying to rub the dirt clots off the other two images. “The Five Chantle Alliance only lasted about twenty years or so. The chantles on the north side of the Forest bonded together to fight the unicorns. But then, shortly after the unicorns vanished, the alliance broke up.”
“No unicorns left to fight,” Jasin said, ” so they had to fight each other. Typical.”
“And your Grandma just happened to have information about this?” Tomlin asked scornfully.
Jasin and I looked at each other, and then back at him. We’d hung around with Tomlin so much these last couple of years, that we’d almost forgotten that he wasn’t really one of “us”, one of our little group that’d been together since childhood.
“Our grandmother was a historian,” Jasin told him. “Highly respected in her field. She also was experienced in archeology. Look up Elizabeth Diltmore sometime when we get back.”
“Diltmore?” Tomlin said, suddenly cracking up. “That crack-pot was your grandma? And you admit it?”
Both Jasin and I stiffened. “She had some . . . unconventional theories,” I said. “And she tended to specialize in areas that didn’t really fit the narrative of history, as it’s been handed down. But she’s no crack pot. Wherever did you hear of such things?”
Jasin and I looked at each other again. Where had Tomlin heard such things? Grandmother’s name wasn’t generally known, outside of a very specialized field of history, and nothing we’d known of Tomlin up to that point had led us to believe that he knew anything about that specialized field. And the things that might have gotten her labeled “crack-pot” were only known to a few outside of our family. Indeed, for most of her field, she was indeed a highly respected historian, with some unusual theories, just as we said.
“Look, I think I’ve cleared off a bit more,” I continued, brightly, diverting our attention back to the chain and pendant. I held it back out to them. Where I had rubbed my fingers, the Alliance Rose had come in even clearer, with barely visible lettering on the petals, which I couldn’t read yet, but I assumed were the names of the chantles, On the left side the mud had cleared enough to show a stylized tree, while on the bottom of the pendant was a set of wavy lines that I assumed stood for water, with a small sailboat on it.
“That’s weird,” Tomlin said, voicing all our thought. What does it mean?”
“Does it have a meaning?” Jasin asked, doubtfully. “Maybe someone found a bunch of images they liked, and put them together.”
“I think we’ll have to have this looked at,” I said, closing my hand around it, and putting it in my pocket.
“Hey!” Tomlin said, holding out his hand for it, “I’m the one who found it, you know. If it turns out to be valuable, I’m the one who should decide what to do with it.”
Jasin looked at me, and shrugged. Reluctantly, I took it back out of my pocket, and handed it back to him. He was right, of course. He had found it, and Jasin and I would never have seen it if it hadn’t been for him. But still, it felt wrong. Though, probably Jasin was right, and it wouldn’t turn out to have much meaning, anyway.
Right about then, Andrea and Jessica had lunch ready. Andrea rang her big old cowbell that she had dug up from somewhere, so we headed back to camp. Tomlin kept the chain in his pocket until after we were done eating, and neither Jasin nor I felt like saying anything about it to the others unless he did.
Of course, no one needed to say much of anything, since Peter was all enthusiastic about the vista, the view he could see from a nearby hill, and all the preliminary sketches he had done from there. He kept talking about it, wanting to set it up in oils, and fretting because he hadn’t brought any, and would have to make due with the water-colors, and whatever else he had brought, which wouldn’t do justice to the bright fresh green colors. Actually, he lost me in technicalities quite early in the meal. He kept talking, wolfing down Andrea’s sandwiches and soups between bites. I’m not sure that he even tasted them, he was so excited. Which was a shame, since they were well worth tasting. Even something as simple as a chicken noodle soup and sub sandwiches were a delectable feast when Andrea made it. And I could see that she’d already chopped vegetables, and had something simmering on the back of the cook-stove for supper.
“You know that oils don’t dry fast enough to bother to bring them,” Jessica gently chastised him, bringing me back to the present. “Especially when the weather is so uncertain. Don’t worry about it, just get out what you have when the light is good tomorrow, and you can put the view in whatever medium you want when we get home in a couple of weeks.”
“But it won’t be the same,” Peter grumbled. But his heart wasn’t really in it, he was in too good a mood. I could see that he’d filled up half a notebook with sketches already, both the scene out, and drawings of the campsite and the creek-side.
Andrea got up, to clear the table, but the rest of us forestalled her. After all, she had cooked the meal, so washing the dishes was the least the rest of us could do. But Andrea insisted, like usual, in cleaning the cooking and serving utensils by herself. She never did quite trust us to get them done right. And she had a certain order she wanted her kitchen kept in, even if that kitchen was in a camp-tent. Even Jessica never quite dared to suggest changing anything in it.
Afterwards, we all sat around the campsite, digesting. We’d probably have the energy to go hiking in a couple of hours, but at the moment, we were just a little way away from a nap.
Tomlin took the necklace from his pocket, and began playing with it. I noticed, but didn’t say anything. I was busy trying to keep my mind on the book I was pretending to read.
After a few minutes, though, Peter sat up a little straighter, and asked, “What do you have there, Tom?”
“Don’t know,” he answered. “Looks like a necklace, or chain of some sort. I dug it up out of the creek-bank earlier.”
Peter took it, and looked at it closely. “I think I could clean it better than this. Seec?” he called out. Jessica got up and came over. “What do you think about this?”
She held it for a moment, frowning as she examined it closely. “Better not. It looks like it was buried a long time. Years, maybe centuries.”
“Do you really think it’s that old?” Tomlin asked. Maybe I ought to drive it to the city tomorrow and have it looked at.”
“Maybe,” Peter said, doubtfully. “But there’s no need to go all the way to the city. Someone in town should be able to tell you something. Let’s see, who in town would be best?”
“This hinky-dink tourist town?” Tomlin asked. “You really think that they’d have a real antiques expert here, not just someone to cheat the tourists?”
“Why not?” Peter asked, absently. “The town’s not just a tourist town. It’s been here for centuries. It’s roots are far deeper than just the clap-trap you see when you just look at it through tourist eyes.”
“Old Tolly,” Jessica said unexpectedly.
“What was that, Seec?” Tomlin asked.
“I said ‘Old Tolly'” Jessica said. “He runs the pub in town. The one with a fighting unicorn on the sign. More of a grill and bar, actually. If he doesn’t know how to value it, he’ll certainly know someone else who does.”
“Of course, Old Tolly,” Peter said, snapping his fingers. “Just the guy for us. That’s who I was trying to think of. His pub’s so decorated with old paintings and statues as it is, it feels like half a museum. I was going to get us all there sometime this week, anyway, just to look at the place. And the food’s not bad either. It’d give Andrea some time off. And Old Tolly’ll go around, and answer any questions about the art anyone asks.”
He frowned again, trying to think. “Blast it all, what was his name. Toliver something-or-other. Everyone in town just calls him Old Tolly, though. His place used to be on the old Merchant Train routes, way back before they broke up. It had a good reputation for a meal even back then, and has kept in operation ever since.”
“Well, I hope they’ve upgraded the kitchen sometime since then,” Tomlin grumbled. “That would’ve been, what? Two, three centuries ago? It’s not like it’s been under the same management in all that time.”
Peter just laughed at him. The rest of us agreed that going into town for dinner the next day would be a good idea. Both to see Old Tolly, even if Tomlin wasn’t fully sold on the idea, he was willing to go along and see what happened. Even Andrea agreed. Much as she loved cooking, she didn’t want to be doing it all the time. And the food at Old Tolly’s pub was quite acceptable, unlike some other places that she could name, which were still better than, shudder, fast food.
“Did you want to clean it before we go?” Tomlin asked, holding the necklace out to him again.
Peter thought for a moment. “No, Seec’s right,” he said. “If it turns out to actually have value, then it’d bet better to leave it with its patina still on it. We shouldn’t really do more than just the gross cleaning that we’ve already done. Better lock it in the van overnight, though, so that nobody’ll walk off with it.
Everyone was more awake by then, so since we seemed to have all of that settled, we broke off to do some activities.
Peter and Jessica walked down the trail to do some horseback riding. I think that was mainly because Jessica figured that even Peter would be hard put to sketch while riding on a horse’s back.
Tomlin and Jasin wandered down towards the rock climbing cliffs. Not that they were planning on doing anything today, they just wanted to get a general lay of the land, before they rented the equipment for one of the easy climbs later in the week.
Andrea and I wandered down to the lake, to check on the prices for canoe rentals, and to walk along some of the lakeside trails. I waded in the lake at some of the beaches, but Andrea said it was far too cold for her.
So, the next day we all got up early. One tends to do that in a tent. The sun tends to shine in, and make everything too bright to sleep. And the fact that Andrea had gotten up even earlier, and had some bacon frying on the griddle didn’t hurt anything, either.
After a good breakfast of ambrosial bacon and eggs, we cleaned up the campsite, all the work you have to do daily camping to keep everything tidy, and the dirt out of the tents. Then we all climbed back into the van to go back into town. It was roomier now that all the camping equipment had been taken out of it. We had driven through the town on the way to the campground the previous day. Like Tomlin had said, it looked like a typical tourist town, all glitz and fake old, without any feeling of depth. But the depth was there. As I looked closer, I could see that Peter was right. Sure, it was a tourist town, nothing could change that. But many of the old stone buildings had actually been around in the days of the merchant trains. None dated back to the time the unicorns were supposed to have lived there, of course. They hadn’t allowed humans to build on their land. Or so it was said. But the merchant train had made this town one of their headquarters, on a cross-roads between roads that ran both north and south, and east and west, to various destinations beyond the Ringgelf Forest. They gathered here to do trading between themselves, to exchange gossip and news, all the things that people do when they get together.
Old Tolly’s pub, the Knight and the Unicorn, did not open until afternoon, and no one answered our knocks, so we spent the morning walking around the town, taking in the touristy bits. It was funny, Old Tolly’s place was the only one, as far as we could see, that dealt at all with the ideas of the unicorn wars, which was, of course, what the unicorns were most remembered for. Rather, they showed cute unicorns, snuggly unicorns, unicorns in baskets. Jasin bought a stuffed bear, just because it was such a a relief to see something besides a unicorn. I suppose though, that a unicorn with blood dripping off of its horn wouldn’t sell as well. Except around the Death Days.
I stopped to look at one of the stores that was selling little glass figurines. Mostly unicorns, of course, but also little glass flowers, delicate, and almost like the real thing, other animal figurines, and some striped glass hearts for necklaces. The glass worker was there in the back, taking sticks of clear and colored glass, and running them through his torch, and then combining them, and working them over with delicate tools to create the figures. It was fascinating. I watched for a while, then picked up a milleflora paperweight, before going to join the others.
All and all, we thoroughly enjoyed the morning’s visit, though I think that Tomlin was grumbling to himself long before the rest of us had tired out. That was natural, I suppose. After all, it was his necklace that we were there to enquire after.
At last though, we went by the Knight and the Unicorn again. It had a quaint wooden sign hanging in the front of it (looking like a good replica of signs that had been once popular, two, three hundred years ago), which showed a knight in full plate armor with a sword in his hand, facing a white unicorn, with a golden mane, golden horn lowered to meet him. All nonsense, of course. Though unicorns were said to have come in many colors, no one had ever mentioned any with golden horns.
Most folks just went in and out of the building without even noticing the sign, of course. We watched them go by. The sign said at the bottom, in small print, “Toliver McLightenson, proprietor.” I went over to tap the sign, it hung just barely within my reach. Yes, it was indeed wood, not fiber-glass, or some other plasticy material. I’d wondered, since the sign looked well weathered, not new, though well kept, not in need of any repair. I wondered how old it really was.
I rather liked the look of the building itself. Well kept up, grey stone, with wood timbers crossed in places. Clean and neat.
There were cooking smells starting to waft out from the back, competing with, but not overwhelming the frying smells from the fast food place across the street, and the sweet spicy smell of a bakery two doors down. Suddenly Jasin’s stomach began rumbling.
“Let’s go in!” he said, and we all laughed.
We went through the dark heavy polished wood and glass doors, and found ourselves in the relatively dark foyer. I stood, blinking, for a couple of moments, trying to get used to the new light level. Things felt rather hushed, like suddenly walking into a library. Then I could hear a hushed sort of babble coming from beyond the double-hung doors into the dining room. Peter arranged for our table, and also took down the phone number, so that we could actually call and talk to Old Tolly later, if he were too busy to talk to while we were there.
In we went, following the waiter. After the relatively plain foyer, the dining room seemed to be fairly bursting with artwork. Discretely hung spots illuminated various paintings and statues on the walls, or on the back of the booths, on various room divisions. Every few minutes, some spotlights faded out, and others lit up, illuminating other portions of the art collection. I could place lots of different eras, covering between a thousand and fifteen hundred years. Suddenly I felt the great weight of time pressing in upon me, and I devoutly hoped that the paintings that were hung there were not the real things, but replicas, or copies, because it’d be horrible if all of that history went up in flames from a kitchen fire.
I doubt that sort of thought had ever entered Peter’s head, he was gazing around like a kid in a candy shop. Tomlin gave a low whistle as he looked around, while Jasin grinned broadly. But something similar did occur to Jessica, though. She whispered to me, “Imagine the insurance bill, An.”
Our table was toward the back, so we walked passed all the artwork. I could feel the pictures staring at me, though I shook it off as just my imagination. We were by no means the first people there, but there were few enough there that large sections of empty tables between every group. We were seated at two small tables pushed together. The real cloth tablecloth covered them both easily enough, but there was a tell-tale difference in height at the join. Behind the tables, rather than one of the paintings, there was a blank spot on the wall, less faded than the surrounding wall paper. The spotlight lit a little white cardboard square, with read, when I got up close enough to read the small print in the dim light:
Dark Knight, on horseback
with tolbent flower
purported to be by Klongin the Younger
on loan to Haranbeth Library
from (a date about three weeks earlier)
to (a date about a month in the future)
I looked at it suspiciously. It seemed to answer the question about whether the paintings were real or not, but somehow I didn’t quite trust it. I looked around the room, and saw two or three other blank spots with similar white cardboard pieces attached. I expected that they also said similar things, no doubt with different painting, sculpture names and descriptions.
“I saw that exhibit up at the Library,” Jasin mentioned, as he grabbed one of the rolls on the table and opened the menu. “Somehow, I didn’t realize that some of the paintings and such came from here. Not that I’d notice, anyway.” He took a bite of the roll, and continued to scan the menu.
“Up at the Solon Gallery?” I said. “I haven’t been there since last year. I need to go more often.”
“I’m there all the time,” Peter said. “Added a few more collections to my list of ones I’m going to visit someday.”
“Did you see that painting?” I asked, gesturing to the empty spot above us.
Peter looked embarrassed. “I noticed several from Old Tolly’s collection, but I don’t remember whether I saw that one in particular, or not.”
“I don’t believe it!” Tomlin exploded. “How can there possibly be this extensive a collection out here in the middle of nowhere? Open to the public, if you call this the public. And no one’s ever heard of it. I thought you all had lost your minds when you suggested it yesterday. I just don’t believe it!”
“And your belief no doubt determines reality,” a voice behind him said dryly.
We turned and looked, and saw someone standing there. “Old Tolly,” Peter whispered to me, looking miserable. “Not the sort of first impression I was hoping to make this trip.”
“Old Tolly” he might have been, but he certainly didn’t look like someone I’d call old. Maybe fifty at the most, though probably quite a bit younger. His thick thatch of hair was a sort of faded red, orange, with a solid, somewhat round face beneath it. He wasn’t overly tall, but was solidly and strongly built, with broad shoulders. Somehow, though, I hadn’t been expecting him to walk with a crutch. Nor an accent that placed him from the far north of Tel. Lichtenland, as it was called. Though no doubt, the name “Toliver McLichtensen” should have given me a clue. There was something odd about that accent, though.
Right at the moment he was glaring at Tomlin, who was like to have wilted beneath his stare. But I could half sense a twinkle bubbling right beneath that glare.
“And what is it that you don’t believe, young man?” he continued, pointing a finger at Tomlin. “That there’s something here that you’ve never heard of? Or that we’re here at all? Well you’d better get used to it, youngster. There is a whole world out there that you’ve never heard of, and may never hear of. But real for all that.” His eye swept over the rest of the group, while we tried our hardest to be invisible. His eye lit on Peter, who squirmed beneath his gaze. Old Tolly frowned for a moment, then snapped his fingers and smiled. “I remember you,” he said, holding out his hand. “You’ve been here before. A young painter, right?” He beamed around the group. “No doubt that I could have just counted on you to set this young whipper-snapper straight without my help.”
“Hey!” Tomlin protested, grinning, “I’ve never snapped a whipper in my life!”
Old Tolly laughed. “Then you’d best get to it, young man,” he said, dropping his broad hand on Tomlin’s shoulder. Tomlin quailed a little beneath the weight. “Time’s a wasting, and the opportunity may not come again.” He laughed again, then said, just before moving on to the next table, “Try the fish. Just caught this morning, it’s exceptionally good today.”
I noticed that though he moved with a decided limp, hardly putting any weight on his right leg at all, and which moved very stiffly, he didn’t seem to be moving at all awkwardly. Indeed, he went on swiftly and almost silently.
“And I didn’t ask him about the necklace,” Tomlin said, half angrily. “Not that there’d be any good way to bring it up. I wish I never let you all talk me into this idea, Pete.”
“Don’t worry about it, he’ll be back,” Peter said. “Besides, you heard him, he likes me. We’ll make an appointment and see him sometime when he isn’t this busy. There should be a time sometime this week. Or I can try to bring up the subject sometime or other.”
I could still see Old Tolly over at the next table, stopping to talk to the people there. He leaned on the table, then left his crutch, and took a couple of hops over to a statue of a rearing unicorn, and pointed out a couple of details. They were too far away for me to make out what they were saying.
I never cared for fish, so I ordered the chicken. Tomlin didn’t either, going for a beef dish. The others did, though. And from their reactions, it was as exceptional as Old Tolly had promised. All talk was silenced for a time as we savored the meal in front of us. Old Tolly made the rounds twice more in that time, but his conversation with us was limited to asking if we needed anything.
Tomlin fingered the necklace in his pocket each time Old Tolly came around. But he seemed reluctant to pull it out.
At last, Peter asked to see it. He pulled out his sketch book, and began to draw the details from it on a much larger scale, while we were waiting for dessert. We had been in there long enough to have gotten used to the light levels, and it no longer felt as dim in there as it had when we first entered. The ever changing spotlights made interesting shadows and contrasts on the medallion as it lay on the table, seeming to bring out the details more vividly as they changed.
Peter, of course, had an artist’s eye, and could pick out more details that the rest of us couldn’t even see until he had enlarged them in his sketchbook.
When he was almost done, and was idly adding in finishing details, possibly not even tasting the delicious dessert in front of him (Jasin was eyeing the almost untouched dessert hopefully, having long since finished off his own piece of cherry pie). Old Tolly came by again, almost silently, still, in spite of his crutch and limp. None of us noticed him, anyway, until he was standing over us. He quietly took in the scene, all of us watching Peter finishing up his sketches. He had quietly come up behind Peter, and casually glanced down to see what he was drawing.
After a moment of bemusement, Old Tolly gave a startled gasp, and pounced on the necklace lying on the table.
“What is this then?” he asked, holding it up.
“Hey, that’s mine!” Tomlin exclaimed, grabbing for it. “I found it. Get your hands off of it!”
For a moment, it looked like Tolly was going to fight him for it. But then he drew back an laughed, and laid the necklace back on the table. “Of course it is. I beg your pardon, young man.” He drew himself further upright, and leaned heavily on his crutch. “It just took me by surprise, is all. I hadn’t seen that medallion in . . . years.” He paused again. “Or one like it. There were only about fifty or so made, you see, and the ones that weren’t lost, centuries ago, are all in museums. On the continent, though. I didn’t know that there were any left in Tel after so long.” He drew his hand over his face, wearily. Suddenly he looked far older than he had previously. But the moment passed, and he took in a great breath.
“You mean, it’s worth something after all?” Tomlin said, excitedly. “I was hoping so, but we were all thinking that it was probably something they sold in one of the gift shops a few years back.”
“Worth something?” Tolly said. “Aye, lad, it’s no doubt worth something, to the right people, And it wouldn’t have been sold at the gift shop. You’d have to find the right collector. Someone who specialized in that era.” He looked us all over carefully. “You see, it has to do with the vanishing of the unicorns, which most would just as soon as forget.”
“Forget about the unicorns?” Tomlin scoffed, gesturing his arm around. “In the heart of the Ringgelf Forest?”
“Oh, we’re nowhere near the heart,” Old Tolly chuckled. “Not by a long shot. But do you believe in the unicorns, lad?” he asked softly. “Do you believe that once they wandered, as think as anything, large herds of unicorns, thundering as they ran out of the trees and over the hills? That once they held this land by magic against all intruders?” His voice continued to drop all through this speech.
Tomlin laughed uncertainly. “Of course not,” he started to say, but broke off uneasily, as none of the rest of us said anything, looking down at the table, or at our hands. “You don’t mean to tell me that the rest of you do?” he exclaimed incredulously. “Everyone knows it’s just a bunch of nonsense, a story for kids. Unicorns couldn’t be real. Not like that,” he said gesturing over at the unicorn statue.
Old Tolly glanced over the rest of us, curiosity burning in his bright eyes, then turned back to deal with Tomlin.
Tomlin had started to get loud, and heads from other tables were starting to turn to look at us. I saw a couple of waiters and waitresses beginning to scurry over.
“And how often have you found that what ‘everyone knows’ to be wrong?” Tolly asked, still keeping his voice low. “Do you not know that if everyone believes something in one age, and no one believes it in the next, it does not necessarily mean that the first age was wrong about it, and the second group right.” He chuckled again. “Of course, it doesn’t necessarily mean the reverse, either. But I–”
One of the waitresses had reached our table, and reached out and grabbed Old Tolly’s arm. “Don’t you think you’d better have this discussion in private, Duncle?” she said. “People are starting to watch.”
Old Tolly glanced around, noticing our growing audience for the first time. “Let them look, Temarta,” he said, laughing, but dropping his intensity. “We have nothing here to hide.”
“Temarta’s my grandmother,” she said, good-humoredly. “I’m Belinda.”
“Of course you are,” Old Tolly said, amiably. “And you’re right, of course.” He gestured around to the rest of us. “Take your time, finish your meal. But if you want to discuss this further later, come back to my office when you have the time.” He wandered off again, through the kitchen door, rather than making another round of the tables. The waiters and waitresses exchanged worried glances before heading back to work.
(Different font, indicating that this is no longer An talking.)
Old Tolly made his way back through the merrily clanging kitchen, now starting to settle down after lunch rush, which was never as busy as dinner rush, especially in this off season. The cooks were starting to prepare the vegetables to go into that evening’s soup. He paused to talk to a couple of them, taking not of their preparations, and saying some encouraging words to them, which he hardly heard himself, before heading back into his office. With a relieved sigh, he closed the door behind him, and leaned on it. That was closer than he’d like to admit. Though not as close as Temarta, no, Belinda, apparently thought. She did have a tendance to be a bit too mother-henish at times.
He made his way over to the desk, and pulled out a smooth, amber colored stone, semi translucent, about half the size of his fist, and absently stuck it into his pocket. The light in here wasn’t bright enough to bring out the gold colored flashes that would have been visible down in its depths out in the bright sunlight. He didn’t often need the comfort of the stone’s warm weight, but when the past unexpectedly jumped up and bit him like that, it helped to anchor his mind to the present.
Tolly leaned back against his tall stool, with his back to the wall, and closed hi eyes. He wouldn’t sit down back into his comfortable desk chair, it was so hard to get out of, and there was still so much work to do before he could relax.
Suddenly he began chuckling again. It wouldn’t really matter if he did tell his secret to that young . . . fellow, he wouldn’t believe it anyway. Prided himself on being a skeptic, that one did, Tolly new the type. So determined not to be taken in, that he couldn’t be taken out. He wondered what that young man was doing with the rest of that group, didn’t quite fit in. There was probably a story there. Ah, well, it wasn’t really any of his business.
Tolly went over, and pulled a bottle from the cupboard, and poured himself a small glass of green liquid. He drank it back in one shot. He chuckled again, as he thought what Belinda’s face would have looked like if she caught him. The trick would’ve been on her, though. There was nothing alcoholic in the bottle. He sighed again, then started going through the papers in his filing cabinet. He wondered which of his many names he would use to buy that pendent and necklace off of that young man. As it was evident that he was much more interested in what he could get out of it than any story behind it. And Tolly wasn’t entirely sure about the story himself, having been on one of his excursions to the far east to buy spices for the merchant train when it had occurred, back in his traveling days, long ago. He had kicked himself when he had returned, and found out he had missed the unicorns leaving, no one knew where. But he had made up for it later, as various people had entrusted their secrets to him. Maybe it was time to send those secrets out again. He sighed, and pulled the stone back out of his pocket. It was definitely past time for sending the Windweaver’s stone out again. He had held onto it too long this time. He wondered, briefly, again at the the fact that the stone seemed to have been returning to him, when by rights it ought to have been returning to the Windweaver. He did not, not for a moment, believe that it meant the Windweaver was dead, though he hadn’t been heard of in centuries. No, no doubt he was just holed up somewhere, and had lost track of time. Just like Old Tolly no longer could remember how long he’d been running this inn. Though it was just a restaurant, now. There was always someone who could use the stone, and appreciate it, whether they knew what it was or not. So many people had never even heard of the Windweaver anymore. No matter, just like him, the Windweaver had stood on the edge of many tales, not in the midst of them. There was that one girl at the table, not the wispy one, but the one with the cooly glowing eyes. She no doubt would see the value of the stone, and pass it on to wherever it was needed. But in a few years, perhaps even decades, it would no doubt return to him. She reminded him of some one, if he could just lay his fingers on it. But then, everyone reminded him of someone nowadays. A relic of knowing so many families through the ages. Certain features passed down, traits that could remain buried for a time, then spring up unexpectedly in new combinations generations later.
Yes, that was it, he nodded decisively. He’d tell them, just enough to satisfy their curiosity about the pendant, get them in touch with his agent, so he could buy it anonymously, and somehow find a way to slip the girl the stone.
A knock on the door startled him out of his reverie. When he opened it, Belinda stood there, expectantly. “Those troublemakers are ready to see you now. I’ve got them cooling their heels in the lobby. I can send them away if you want. At least some of them are waiting. Somehow one of the gals got exchanging recipes with the head cook, don’t even ask me how that came about, because I don’t know. And one of the guys decided he’d rather spend the afternoon meandering the town than cooped up in here. His words, not mine. But that still leaves four of them. You want me to kick them out for you?”
“Ah, no, I want to see them,” Tolly said. “Send them off to the other office, it’s got chairs. And better light. I’m going to need it to really examine that pendant of theirs.” He paused for a moment. “I don’t suppose it was that young whippersnapper who claimed to have found the pendant that wandered off, was it?”
“Ah, no such luck. ‘Twas the other one, the redheaded one.”
Tolly searched his memory, but didn’t remember any redheaded people at the table. But he thanked her anyway, and dug out a few more papers from his filing cabinet and desk drawers.
(Back to An’s font.)
After lunch we asked the waitress where we could find Old Tolly, since he had said we could go see him. Somehow, before we had finished our dessert, though, Andrea had wrangled and invitation to go back to the kitchen, and was currently hob-nobbing with the head cook. I think they were cousins of some sort. Certainly the were kindred spirits, though.
When the waitress took us back out to the lobby, while she went to check on Old Tolly’s whereabouts (she was perfectly polite, but somehow managed to convey that Old Tolly was a very, very, busy man, that she’d check on him, but don’t expect anything, and it’d serve our impertinence right, if he chucked us out on our ear), Jasin decided he’d rather get some fresh air than be cooped up in this dim place any longer. “Call me when you’re ready to go,” he said. “I’ll try not to wander very far. Mostly through the neighborhood shops again. I just need a bit of sunshine.”
The waitress took us back through the kitchen, and up some stairs to an office in the back, with large windows opening on the back garden of the houses and the stores. I had expected the back to be just a paved area, for deliveries, with dumpsters and trash spread about. It did have dumpster,s and a paved alley, but there was a raised area that was lawns and gardens. It probably helped that the other side of the alley was houses instead of shops, like I had thought. We apparently hadn’t gone that way when we were out walking.
Old Tolly wasn’t there yet, so I went and looked out the windows. The garden directly across the way had apple trees, the white blossoms of which were just starting to bud. Not really what I had expected to see in the middle of a town, even such a small town as this one. There was a chain link fence around the edge of the yards, on top of the wall, but none between the gardens. In a couple of places, there were stone staircases cut back into the wall, with gates at both the tops and bottoms of the stairs.
I heard the door open, and hurriedly turned and rushed back to my seat. Old Tolly came in, nodded to us all, and first thing went over to the windows, lowered the blinds, and adjusted them so that, though one could still see out, the bright sunlight would no longer be shining directly in his face. The office was large, with a large dark wood desk, and a comfortable looking chair behind it, though the seat was higher than I would have liked it, and several other chairs spread out on the other side of it. Peter, Jessica, and Tomlin were already seated in three chairs, as I took my place in a fourth. There were at least four more chairs stacked against the wall by the door, with room for all of them, plus more still in the office.
Tomlin had taken the necklace out of his pocket and laid it across his knee. Peter had of course gotten out his sketch book and started to draw the office and the scene out the window, though he put it down as soon as Old Tolly came through the door.
We looked at each other for maybe a minute or so with no one saying anything. It felt like forever. I wondered if he were trying to make us, or at least Tomlin, feel uncomfortable, but quickly reached the conclusion that he was as unsure about how to begin as we were. Which was odd, considering how boisterous and forthcoming he had seemed in the the dining room. Here he seemed almost shrunken, and it again crossed my mind that he was probably far older than he seemed.
“Well, then, son, let me look at it again,” he finally said to Tomlin, who handed him the necklace. Old Tolly took it, and felt its weight with his hand, and pored over its surface. After examining minutely, with just an occasional “hmmm . . .” he looked at us again.
“Just like I thought,” he said, holding it back out to Tomlin, “This does appear to be a real medallion, not a replica. It was probably pressed in the chantle of Dolthar, in Doltharbeth, ages ago. Indeed, shortly after the disappearance of the unicorns. The head of the Five Chantle Alliance, it was. Not that it lasted long. But they considered it their great victory when the unicorns vanished. But I doubt the unicorns even noticed it. They’d been fighting against humans so long.”
“You don’t really expect us to believe that nonsense about unicorns actually existing?” Tomlin said. “That’s just a legend to bring in tourists.”
“Oh, for crying out loud, Tom,” I said. “Look around for once. There are annals and chronicles of that time detailing the Unicorn Wars. Sure, even more have been lost, but piles remain. And that’s not counting later references. I’ve seen some of them, read translations of others. These weren’t starry-eyed dreamers, Tom, no matter what people may say now. It never even occurred to anyone to doubt their existence for at least a century after they left.” It took me a moment to catch my breath.
They were all staring at me, Old Tolly thoughtfully, Tomlin in astonishment. I flushed, and sat back down. Peter leaned over, and whispered to me, “Good for you, An!”
“To be fair,” Old Tolly said, judiciously, “the first few centuries after they left, there were horns in many of the chantle kings’ treasuries. And most of them were genuine. It took at least four centuries before the last of them crumbled into dust, and the world moved on.”
He picked up the necklace again. “Like I was saying,” he said, his voice taking on a professorial tone, while his Lichtenland accent grew even thicker. “This was minted shortly after the last appearance of the unicorns, maybe with a year of them vanishing, as near as they could tell. They held a large ceremony to celebrate the unicorns’ disappearance, and gave copies of this to all the dignitaries who came. They thought it a great victory.” He gazed off into the distance, lost in thought.
“And was it?” Jessica asked softly.
He glanced at her, returning to the present. “Who can say, lass? Certainly the world is poorer since they left. But there has also been no unicorn wars for nigh on a thousand years.” He sighed again. “Though certainly there’s been no shortages of other wars.
“The unicorn head was of course for the vanquished foes. On the other side, the unicorn horn at the top was for the treasure troves of unicorn horns that hey hoped to find when they went through the forest. That legendary trove, was, of course, never found. The two cups were the ones they drank from to formalize the alliance in the first place. Well, one was for the original alliance, while the other was for the alliance they were hoping to set up, now that the unicorns were gone.”
“And the tree and the water?” Peter asked eagerly, when Tolly paused.
“I . . . do not know, actually,” he said, uncertainly. “That is something that was not recorded. In fact,” his eyes took on the far-away look again “As far as I know, the other know copies of this, have had the corresponding images scraped off. Presumably when the alliance failed. Whatever they represented, it apparently did not come to fruition as they had hoped.”
“‘Come to fruition’?” Tomlin said. “Who talks like that?”
“I do, young man,” Old Tolly said, ensnaring Tomlin with a steely gaze. “Now, where were we? Oh, yes. You were hoping for an approximation of this pendant and chain’s worth.”
I started. I had grown so interested in the story that I had forgotten our original purpose in coming here.
Tomlin, of course, hadn’t, though. “Finally!” he exploded. “All this time we’ve been waiting. I do have better things to do with my time than to sit here and listen to old stories!”
“Like what?” Peter asked him. “We’re on spring break.”
“Like maybe going out and having fun. Or maybe finding someone actually interested in buying this hunk of metal, instead of just standing around jabbering about it.”
“Well, if you’re just thinking of it as a hunk of metal,” Old Tolly said, his brough growing so thick it was almost unintelligible, “Then it’d be easy for ye to find a buyer who’d just want to melt it down. But if you want it’s full worth, then you’ll need to find someone who knows aught about it, and appreciates its part of history.”
“Like maybe you, perhaps,” Tomlin said scornfully.
“Why not me?” Old Tolly said. “Would ye scorn to have me as a purchaser?”