THE SHADOW OF HISTORY - CHAPTER 2
I stared into the eyes of my professor, the only man I truly looked up to. But to tell him the truth, or even pieces of it, was to place an inordinate amount of trust in him. I had been very careful with the remarks I made to Patrick and Yanis even though their loyalty to me had been proven many times over our years of friendship. At least I had been careful up until my recent meltdown in the hall. Repeating those ramblings to Professor Marius, without the cover of an excuse or assurances of his loyalty, was playing with fire. For they weren’t the simple, and relatively harmless ponderings of a young man who simply thought too much. My newest theories were downright conspiratorial.
Our culture was drenched in imagery and tales inspired by the Scriptures. It was not uncommon, or socially unacceptable, to imagine what faeries, demons, and elderbeasts might be like if they were real. But we were never to cross into the territory of believing, and telling others to believe, that they were actually real. I had not yet come to that conclusion myself, but I was having doubts that everything written in the Scriptures were simply a parable.
A queasy haze pooled in the pit of my stomach. I remember overhearing my uncle saying something years ago, when I had first moved in with them. He had come home a little drunk, rambling about how some nut from the University had gone into one of the largest, most popular pubs in Torrin with what he claimed was a demon skull and started waving it about and telling everyone that the Scriptures were true and that humans needed to turn to the Black Forest once more to remember their true power. My uncle had laughed so hard he fell onto the floor as he told my aunt how the “demon horns” were from a yak. Though they had been very cleverly affixed to the skull, it had taken only a short examination from a farmer to uncover the ruse.
After that incident the man, and his whole family, were shunned. The years of prestige and good will built up by being a history teacher at the University were ripped from him in an instant. He was immediately fired and unable to find work anywhere else. Merchants would no longer sell goods to his wife at the market. Even his young children were no longer welcome at the public schools. His own brother openly shunned him in order to save himself from being cast out from society. I never found out what happened to them after that, only that they were never heard from again.
The very same could happen to me if I wasn’t careful. I could ruin the lives of everyone around me. Patrick, Yanis, Aunt Greta, Phoebe… Yet, I couldn’t bring myself to back down now. This was far too important. If I couldn’t trust Professor Marius, I wouldn’t be able to trust anyone.
“I saw something,” I said softly, and swallowed hard. Already I could feel the sweat starting to pool under my arms.
“What did you see?” Marius asked, his tone still as steady and calm as ever.
“A language,” I replied.
I nodded and paused, carefully collecting my thoughts. What I said next, and how I said it, would be examined and weighted far more scrupulously than the gruelling exams I just spent the last three weeks taking.
“I don’t believe those are simply designs on the walls in the Nemshi Hall. I clearly saw the symbols for ‘faerie’ and ‘demon’, the same ones used by the witches and shamans that come to our festival markets. Had they been arranged in a repeating pattern with the other symbols it would not have been as strange to me. I could have written it off as simply old runes from our pre-textual history that fit in with the motif of the hall. However, they weren’t. They were arranged randomly and were divided every so often with a thin, vertical line that served a function beyond aesthetics. I am sure of it. But if this theory is true, then…”
I paused, debating whether I should state my hypothesis so bluntly, but I knew it was too late. Professor Marius never let us weakly dangle our thoughts like that in the classroom and I highly doubted he would let me get away with it now. I’d begin with the least inflammatory conclusion I could muster.
“Then it stands to reason that some of what we were taught about our past is wrong. Written history did not start with King Arturius.”
As soon as the words left my lips a barrage of thoughts that I dared not speak hit me in rapid succession. If I was right, then either the Church was oblivious to the secrets hidden in that room and a large portion of our history was lost, or they were hiding it on purpose. Yet if they were hiding it, why would they let anyone not ordained by the Church into that Hall? In fact, if they were so concerned with heretical ideas, why wouldn’t they destroy these artifacts and leave behind no evidence at all?
The other thought that crossed my mind was that the Church was behind the creation of this secondary, secret language. But that still had huge implications. Why would the Church need a secret language? What, exactly, were they trying to keep secret?
The blood drained from my face as I realized my potentially fatal mistake. Professor Marius, though not a practicing priest, was still of the Church. The Church controlled all of our education. To be a teacher at any level meant being certified by the Church. It was their administration, after all, that wrote our textbooks. If there was a conspiracy, then he was surely part of it.
Moments passed that felt like hours as I waited in a dizzy, nauseous fog for his response.
“What do you intend to do with your theory?” He asked.
“What?” I blinked. Out of the myriads of possible responses I predicted him saying in my paranoid, panic-induced state, this was not one of them.
“You are a scholar, Remus. Most scholars wish to test and research their theories. Is that what you wish to do with yours?”
I sat there in stunned silence, my mouth hanging dumbly open. In a single, decisive strike he had cut through all the trivialities, all the what-ifs, and found the heart of the issue at once – what was I intending to do with this theory now that it had gripped my mind?
He gave my knee a pat then stood. “I’ll leave you here to rest and think on that while I return to the ceremony. I ask that you stay here and wait for me, as I plan on giving you your graduation scroll myself afterward.”
I bowed my head to him. “Thank you, professor.”
He glided out of the room, quietly shutting the door behind him and leaving me alone to stew in silent agitation.
I immediately slumped forward, resting my arms and head on his desk. My eyes traced the shadowed outline of his ink bottle, giving me something to focus on as I tried to ride out the wave of nausea that was washing over me. Part of me hoped he’d shut me down immediately, provide the obvious answer that I was missing and disprove my wild ramblings. The fact that he didn’t address my theory only sharpened my gnawing anxiety. It was as if I had been long preparing to jump off a precipice, and the moment I mustered the bravery to finally take the leap, I was grabbed by an unseen force and left to dangle over the edge.
Of course, I knew from experience that it was rare for Professor Marius to give an opinion, or even a definitive statement. It was his way of forcing us students to think for ourselves. Nearly every interpretation of the Scriptures we gave was met with more questions, as he had always been far more interested in us bolstering our own theories than agreeing with his. And it was likely that was exactly what he was doing here – forcing me to find out for myself how much I believed in this theory of mine. Was my resolve strong enough to withstand the secrets I would be burdened with? The dangers I could potentially expose my family to? It was embarrassing to admit, but I had a feeling the reason I wanted a reaction from him was to relieve myself from the impending responsibility that such a discovery implied.
I let out a heavy sigh and let my eyes flutter shut as both mental and physical weariness took over. Ancestors, what had I gotten myself into?
I jumped as I felt a gentle touch on the top of my head.
“Huh?” I slowly sat up, confused about where I was, and momentarily, who I was. When had I fallen asleep?
There was a soft chuckle beside me that reminded me of rustling leaves, and I arched my head upwards to see Professor Marius standing next to his desk looking down at me.
“When I told you to rest I did not think you would actually fall asleep,” he said.
I cleared my throat and ran my hands over my face, mostly to hide the quick flush of embarrassment. “Forgive me, professor. I haven’t been sleeping well and your office has a calming effect.”
“It is quite alright. The other students have finished their ceremony. Would you like to come down and finish yours?”
I looked up at him. He was still being kind to me, which I was grateful for, but now I wondered if he had chosen to ignore the matter completely. Perhaps he was giving me an out – one last chance to escape embarrassment and possible persecution.
Suddenly I smirked as another thought struck me. There was another very reasonable answer as to why he wasn’t asking me more about my theory right at this exact moment – he wanted me to enjoy my graduation. I was always trying to move so many steps ahead I often forgot to slow down and be present in the moment. Honestly, a little more faerie energy wouldn’t hurt me.
“Yes, please,” I said and stood.
He gave me a small smile then headed out, leading me back through the long corridors to the now deserted Nemshi Hall. We stepped inside and he shut the door behind us, the sound echoing along the pale, white walls.
Without all the people and excitement in the air, the hall’s atmosphere had completely changed. The polished marble seemed almost naked to me, exposed, and it was making me overly sensitive to Professor Marius’ presence, as if I was somehow laid bare as well. Though considering the confession I just entrusted him with, in a way I was.
“I will leave you to your thoughts for a few moments,” Professor Marius said softly, his eyes going to the wall over my shoulder before returning to mine. “But only a few.”
There it was! An acknowledgement of my situation! I stared into his dark grey eyes for a moment,
searching for even a glimpse of emotion, but all I saw was the reflection of flickering candlelight all around us. Defeated once again, I nodded to him then made my way over to the wall. Perhaps it would be more open with me than my professor.
My eyes moved over the engravings, and as they did, the desire to reach out and touch them grew stronger. I forcefully clasped my hands behind my back, like a man covering his ears so he cannot hear the alluring lullaby of a hungry faerie and be drawn unwittingly into the depths of the forest never to be seen again. Though I was not typically superstitious, I had a feeling that if I were to touch these strange symbols I would forever lose the chance to back away from the damning secrets they may hold.
I forced myself to examine the designs slowly this time, making sure I hadn’t made any hasty assumptions earlier in my zealousness. But I was coming to the exact same conclusion. The spacing, the punctuating vertical lines, and the randomization of the symbols were still guiding me to the idea that this was indeed some sort of long passage I was looking at. But considering how different these characters were from our current alphabet, I had to wonder if something changed in our speaking as well. Or perhaps text was not treated the same way in our ancient past. It could have been used to simply record ideas, rather than trying to perfectly mimic speech.
Again it was those repeating ‘faerie’ and ‘demon’ symbols that unnerved me the most. I couldn’t come up with any explanation as to why they were here and also in the hands of our witches and shamans. Did the priestesses use them too? The tribal villagers? From what I knew, the villagers relied solely on orally transmitting their history and folktales. They would have no use for text.
I turned to see Marius waiting at the lectern at the back of the room. My time alone with my thoughts was over.
I spared one last glance at the strange symbols, unsure if this was goodbye or the first of many meetings, then made my way over to Marius.
The closer I got to meeting him at the lectern, the more nervous I became. My body began to move stiltedly, as if all my joints had fused together. I was exceedingly conscious of Professor Marius’ attention being focused entirely on me.
When I stopped moving he picked up the solitary scroll that was waiting on the lectern. “Come closer, Remus.”
I did so, focusing far too hard on not tripping over my own feet.
A ghost of a smile passed over Professor Marius’ lips before he spoke. “With this scroll, written by the hands of your predecessors, your position in the University’s illustrious history of scholastic achievement is recognized and achieved. Congratulations, Remus Merzhin. May you continue to honour your Ancestors and become worthy of joining them in our Divine Heritage.”
He then bowed and offered me the scroll.
With trembling hands I took it and let out a soft, little laugh. I did it. Though it had hardly been a burden for me, there was still something satisfying about being recognized for my efforts. And I had to remember that this scroll was like a magical key, with it I could open up many doors in terms of my future occupations and connections.
“And now that you are officially no longer my pupil, there is something else I wish to offer you,” Professor Marius said.
I looked up at him, intrigued and confused.
“I would like to extend to you an invitation to join me on my sabbatical. It will give you time to consider your future and a taste of what research in the field would be like, should you choose to follow certain paths.”
“J-join you?” I stuttered, and for once, my heart began moving faster than my mind.
“But… why? Why me?” I asked.
“I’m afraid I’m not as perfectly balanced as you would like to believe. Even I am subject to whims of favouritism.”
I fumbled, my mouth opening and closing as dumbly as a trout. “I’m honoured, but to ask me to spend such time with you when I can’t see what you’d get out of it…”
“I think I have flattered you enough, Remus, do not fish for more compliments.”
“I wasn’t!” I exclaimed and blushed darkly. “You just caught me off guard. Where would we go?” I asked, trying to regain some sort of composure and control over the conversation.
“That I would like to leave a surprise, but I do have a destination in mind. And I’m afraid I would like an answer before you leave this hall. I shall be making my preparations as soon as tonight.”
Usually I would have felt overwhelmed being forced to make a decision so quickly, but instead I felt a wave of excitement and impulsivity wash over me. Nothing, and no one, was going to stop me from taking advantage of this rare and precious opportunity.
“Yes! Yes, I would love to join you on your sabbatical. What should I tell my family? How long will we be away?”
“Two weeks. We leave the day after tomorrow.”
“What should I pack?”
“I will handle supplies. You need only worry about clothing and other personal items.”
“Understood,” I said, looking down at the scroll in my hands and smiling. Once again it seemed my graduation was being overshadowed.
“Come. The Cardinal will be by shortly to lock up,” Professor Marius said and started to walk down the center path between the candelabra.
I followed beside him and as we stepped out of the hall and into the corridor it felt like we were emerging from the realm of dreams and returning to the waking world.
My eyes were once again drawn to the pitch black wooden doors. Somehow I wanted to blame them for that feeling.
“Yanis and Patrick asked me to tell you that they had to head home to see their families for their private celebrations, but would like to see you soon,” Professor Marius said, saving me from my strange musings.
“Thank you. I’ll make sure to visit them tomorrow,” I said, fidgeting with the scroll in my hand. “When and where should I meet you?” I asked, worried that perhaps I really had been dreaming, or hallucinating, back in the Nemshi Hall.
“At the front gates of the University at eight.”
Blessings to the Ancestors, it hadn’t been a dream! I really was going to join Professor Marius on his sabbatical.
“I will be here,” I said with a smile.
“I look forward to it.”
With one final nod to him I walked out of the University and into the city, nearly skipping along the cobblestone streets. I was halfway home before thoughts about my confession caught up with me again. Professor Marius had completely sidetracked me with his invitation. Though didn’t that invitation mean he wasn’t disappointed or angry with me?
I blanched. Unless he planned on taking me out of the city to do away with me and my heretical ideas forever.
“Remus!” I whispered harshly to myself. I was behaving worse than a little girl with a wild imagination. It was also an incredibly rude thing to think of my professor. I needed to stop digging for ulterior motives and simply take things at face value. He admitted outright that he favoured me. Perhaps all he wanted was some company and good conversation while he went on his sabbatical. We were, after all, interested in the very same things, and we couldn’t have extended, in depth conversations while I was his student without his favouritism being noticed.
Whatever lingering thoughts I had about that disturbing topic were dispelled as I stepped into our house. The smell of my favourite spiced stew made me realize in an instant how famished I was.
“Remus, you’ve finally made it back,” my aunt said with a large smile on her face.
I raised my scroll. “And here it is.”
“You did it!” Phoebe cried out and ran over to hug me, nearly toppling me right over.
I laughed and hugged her back. “I better go put this in my room before you crush it,” I said and did exactly that, placing the scroll on my bookshelf for safekeeping until I bought a suitable box for it.
“And look what I brought back for you,” Phoebe said as soon as I stepped back out of my room, dragging me over to the kitchen table by the cuff of my sleeve.
She opened up the canvas bag and a waft of garlic hit me. Inside were a half dozen garlic rolls just waiting to be devoured.
“I know you don’t care for sweet things, so I thought you might appreciate these more than cakes.”
“They’re perfect,” I said and started reaching into the bag.
Phoebe smacked my hand. “Not until we sit down!”
“And why should I obey you? Last time I checked I’m still your senior by two years.”
“Yes, but I can still beat you up. I got baker’s arms,” Phoebe said, flexing her biceps.
I laughed. “I’m sure the young men will love that line when you go out courting.”
“Now you’re just asking for it!” Phoebe yelled and started smacking me, causing us both to laugh and swat at each other.
The front door opened and Uncle Lars walked in carrying a ceramic wine bottle.
“And here I thought I’d walk in on a man all grown up, yet he’s still playing like a child,” my uncle said and sat down at the table, setting the bottle down. “Stew done yet, Greta?”
“Almost. You two wash up then sit down,” Aunt Greta said to my cousin and I.
We went to the wash basin and rinsed our hands then sat down at the table.
It was an enjoyable dinner, and the conversation managed to be pleasant right up until the very end when Aunt Greta started to clear the plates with Phoebe.
“So, Remus, you’ve got the scroll. What do you plan on doing with it?” Uncle Lars asked.
There it was. The ever-looming question. I needed to think fast before the evening turned sour.
“I haven’t decided yet,” I said, raising my hand to stop my uncle from immediately launching into a tirade. “After my graduation ceremony Professor Marius invited me to join him for two weeks on his sabbatical. During that time I’d like to ask him more about what being a professor at the University would entail. Right now I’m still deciding between that and becoming an apothecary. When I return I will give you an answer.”
Uncle Lars let out a grunt, but I could tell my words had at least partially won him over. “Do you need any shards for this trip of yours?”
“Oh, no, I don’t believe so,” I said.
“Good,” Uncle Lars said, then got up. “I’m heading for the restaurant. I’ll meet you there, Greta.”
“See you soon,” Aunt Greta said.
Phoebe waited until my uncle was gone before rushing over to sit with me at the table again. “Is that true what you told him? About going on a trip with Professor Marius?”
“It is,” I replied, my pleasant mood starting to return.
Phoebe let out a very girlish squeal. “That’s amazing! You’re going to have so much alone time with your darling professor.”
“Ugh, give it a rest,” I said and gave her shin a small kick. “And speaking of rest, you should go get some.”
As if on cue, Phoebe let out a yawn, stretching her arms high up into the air. “You’re probably right. When are you leaving?”
“Day after tomorrow. Don’t worry, I’ll get you to help me decide what to bring. Professor Marius told me to only worry about clothes and personal items.”
“I’m on it, we’ll pick something out tomorrow night,” Phoebe said then stood. “Thanks for dinner, mom, it was amazing. I’m going to wash up then head for bed.”
“Of course dear, rest well,” Aunt Greta said then looked to me. “Come help me finish up the last of these dishes.”
I got up and walked over without complaint.
Aunt Greta was quiet until Phoebe was locked away in the water closet preparing for bed.
“I was never like those two either, Remus. Both Lars and Phoebe knew what they wanted to be from a young age and took the fastest path to get there. They never had any doubts like you or I. It was part of the reason Lars wasn’t too sure about you coming to live with us at first – you weren’t part of his plan. Though that doesn’t mean he hasn’t grown to care for you in his own way. You don’t hear it much around here, but he does brag about both you and Phoebe at the restaurant. He just hates that he can’t answer anyone about what your plans are when they ask.”
I chuckled. That sounded about right. Uncle Lars loathed anything that was an inconvenience or put him on the spot.
“And I think this trip with your professor is exactly what you need. A change of environment does wonders when you’re stuck on a decision. Do you know where you’re going?”
“No, he’s left it a surprise.”
“You’re making me jealous now. What I’d give for a surprise trip.”
I smiled at my aunt. “I doubt Uncle Lars will ever surprise you with a trip, but that doesn’t mean you can’t ask him to take you somewhere. You two hardly ever take any time for yourselves.”
“Well now that my two babies are all grown up maybe I’ll start thinking of spoiling myself again,” Auntie Greta said and kissed my forehead. “I should head to the restaurant. Can you finish up the last of the dishes here?”
“Of course, auntie,” I said.
She smiled at me then stepped out of our comfortable, little home, leaving me feeling wonderfully calm after what had been a far too dramatic day.
I made sure to visit Patrick and Yanis the next day to congratulate them on their graduation and smooth out any lingering ill feelings I made with my outburst. Luckily, both seemed to believe me when I told them again that it was simply a bad mix of being way too tired and unusually excited about the hall. It also wasn’t the first time I had gotten overly worked up about things in their presence, especially when I thought I was solving some sort of mystery. Though they forgave me, Patrick didn’t hold back and slapped me upside the head, telling me to watch what I said next time, especially in a room full of people. I promised him I would.
They were also surprised and amused when I told them about my trip with Professor Marius. My admiration for him was no secret, and they were just as quick to tease me as Phoebe had been.
With that settled I returned home and let Phoebe help me pack. She was far more practical than I was. With my neurotic tendencies I was liable to pack my entire room “just in case”. Wisely, she told me to wear layers and only bring extra undergarments. It didn’t matter if my outer layers got dirty, and she doubted I was going to go anywhere that would involve me damaging them. As for my personal items, she convinced me to only pack my notebook, quills, and a very sturdy bottle of cheap ink.
My aunt was the only one around and awake to see me off, but that was fine by me. I was too nervous to be dealing with the strong energies of the other two.
It was strange walking to the University with an entirely different purpose in mind. Though I had graduated, it hadn’t really sunk in yet. I still very much felt like a student. It was the only life I knew.
Which is why when I saw Professor Marius standing outside the main entrance of the University in his full Church garb and two rucksacks at his feet, it felt all the more surreal. My life didn’t involve going on trips to unknown places with prestigious men. It was as if I had suddenly stepped into someone else’s life.
“Good morning, Remus,” Professor Marius said and lifted the smaller of the two rucksacks and offered it to me. “This is for you to carry. I left enough room for you to add your own belongings.”
“Thank you,” I said and took the bag, putting the rest of my stuff inside.
“I’m impressed. I thought you would have packed more.”
I chuckled. “Don’t be, it was my cousin’s doing. I knew I’d pack far too much if I was left to my own devices.”
“You were wise enough to acknowledge and confront your own shortcomings. That is still worthy of note,” Professor Marius said, then lifted the other bag and shifted it onto his shoulders in one swift movement, as if it weighed nothing.
I tried to do the same with my bag, but the momentum nearly toppled me over. The damned thing wasn’t overly heavy, yet I certainly couldn’t pretend like it held only feathers.
He started walking westward and I followed beside him, standing taller than usual. I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of pride being seen in public next to this man.
The west side of the city was less familiar to me, and I enjoyed taking in the unfamiliar surroundings. Like with the east side, the neighbourhoods varied from rich to poor in quick succession, though even the poor neighbourhoods were in good repair. The city made sure of that. We passed through two small market courtyards and I had to make sure not to dawdle as my eyes quickly darted around trying to take everything in. I’d always had quite the fascination with shops and the imaginative goods they sold.
We were nearly at the west gate when Professor Marius turned into a small garden area and set down his bag. He then opened it up then pulled out a stiff, black coat and offered it to me. I knew immediately what it was before I even saw the Church’s symbol stitched onto the collar.
My eyes bulged. “I can’t wear this! I’m not ordained by the Church!”
“Apprentices do not need to be ordained.”
“But they do need to be approved, and I haven’t decided if that’s what I want to do yet,” I said, trying to be polite and hide my shock at the blatant breaking of Church rules.
The right corner of Professor Marius’ lips curled upwards ever so slightly. “And I won’t pressure you into that decision, though there is a different one I need you to make. From this point on we can either walk to our destination and camp, or we can spend part of our time accepting rides from passing wagons and board from devoted followers of the Scriptures. If we do the latter, then this coat and the small lie that accompanies it will be necessary.”
It wasn’t an easy decision. Two weeks of sleeping out in the elements and walking with this rucksack that was sure to get heavier by the hour didn’t exactly appeal to me. I had always been a man who enjoyed the amenities of the city, including a warm bed to sleep in away from the elements. However, I felt a bit guilty lying just to ease my own burden.
1) Accept the coat and spend part of their trip riding wagons and staying with devotees willing to put them up for the night.
2) Be honest and spend the whole trip walking and camping outdoors.
Head on over to our discord to vote!