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Page 25

“Yes,” said Esk. “Granny, about this wizard magic, it's all words -”

“Always said it was,” said Granny.

“No, I mean -” Esk began, but Granny waved a hand irritably.

“Can't be bothered with this at the moment,” she said. “I've got some big orders to fill by tonight, if it goes on like this I'm going to have to train someone up. Can't you come and see me when you get an afternoon off, or whatever it is they give you?”

“Train someone up?” said Esk, horrified. “You mean as a witch?”

“No,” said Granny. “I mean, perhaps.”

“But what about me?”

“Well, you're going your own way,” said Granny. “Wherever that is.”

“Mmph,” said Esk. Granny stared at her.

“I'll be off, then,” she said at last. She turned and strode off towards the kitchen entrance. As she did so her cloak swirled out, and Esk saw that it was now lined with red. A dark, winy red, but red nevertheless. On Granny, who had never been known to wear any visible clothing that was other than a serviceable black, it was quite shocking.

“The library?” said Mrs Whitlow. “Aye don't think anyone cleans the library!” She looked genuinely puzzled.

“Why?” said Esk, “Doesn't it get dusty?”

“Well,” said Mrs Whitlow. She thought for a while. “Aye suppose it must do, since you come to mention it. Aye never really thought about it.”

“You see, I've cleaned everywhere else,” said Esk, sweetly.

“Yes,” said Mrs Whitlow, “You have, haven't you.”

“Well, then.”

“It's just that we've never - done it before,” said Mrs Whitlow, “but for the life of me, Aye can't think why.”

“Well, then,” said Esk.

“Ook?” said the Head Librarian, and backed away from Esk. But she had heard about him and had come prepared. She offered him a banana.

The orang-outan reached out slowly and then snatched it with a grin of triumph.

There may be universes where librarianship is considered a peaceful sort of occupation, and where the risks are limited to large volumes falling off the shelves on to one's head, but the keeper of a magic library is no job for the unwary. Spells have power, and merely writing them down and shoving them between covers doesn't do anything to reduce it. The stuff leaks. Books tend to react with one another, creating randomised magic with a mind of its own. Books of magic are usually chained to their shelves, but not to prevent them being stolen ....

One such accident had turned the librarian into an ape, since when he had resisted all attempts to turn him back, explaining in sign language that life as an orang-outan was considerably better than life as a human being, because all the big philosophical questions resolved themselves into wondering where the next banana was coming from. Anyway, long arms and prehensile feet were ideal for dealing with high shelves.

Esk gave him the whole bunch of bananas and scurried away amongst the books before he could object.

Esk had never seen more than one book at a time and so the library was, for all she knew, just like any other library. True, it was a bit odd the way the floor seemed to become the wall in the distance, and there was something strange about the way the shelves played tricks on the eyes and seemed to twist through rather more dimensions than the normal three, and it was quite surprising to look up and see shelves on the ceiling, with the occasional student wandering unconcernedly among them.

The truth was that the presence of so much magic distorted the space around it. Down in the stacks the very denim, or possibly flannelette, of the universe was tortured into very peculiar shapes. The millions of trapped words, unable to escape, bent reality around them.

It seemed logical to Esk that among all these books should be one that told you how to read all the others. She wasn't sure how to find it, but deep in her soul she felt it would probably have pictures of cheerful rabbits and happy kittens on the cover.

The library certainly wasn't silent. There was the occasional zip and sizzle of a magical discharge, and an octarine spark would flash from shelf to shelf. Chains clinked, faintly. And, of course, there was the faint rustle of thousands of pages in their leather-bound prisons.

Esk made sure no one was paying her any attention and pulled at the nearest volume. It sprang open in her hands, and she saw gloomily that there were the same unpleasant types of diagram that she had noticed in Simon's book. The writing was entirely unfamiliar, and she was glad about that - it would be horrible to know what all those letters, which seemed to be made up of ugly creatures doing complicated things to each other, actually meant. She forced the cover shut, even though the words seemed to be desperately pushing back. There was a drawing of a creature on the front; it looked suspiciously like one of the things from the cold desert. It certainly didn't look like a happy kitten.

“Hallo! Esk, isn't it? H-how d-did you get h-here?”

It was Simon, standing there with a book under each arm. Esk blushed.

“Granny won't tell me,” she said. “I think it's something to do with men and women.”

Simon looked at her blankly. Then he grinned. Esk thought about the question a second time.

“I work here. I sweep up.” She waved the staff in explanation.


Esk stared at him. She felt alone, and lost, and more than a little betrayed. Everyone seemed to be busy living their own lives, except her. She would spend the rest of her life cleaning up after wizards. It wasn't fair, and she'd had enough.

“Actually I don't. Actually I'm learning to read so I can be a wizard.”

The boy regarded her through his damp eyes for some seconds. Then he gently took the book out of Esk's hands and read its title.

“Demonylogie Malyfycorum of Henchanse thee Unsatyfactory. How did you think you could learn to r-read this?”

“Um,” said Esk, “Well, you just keep trying until you can, don't you? Like milking, or knitting, or . . . .” Her voice faded away.

“I don't know about that. These books can be a bit, well, aggressive. If you d-don't be careful they start reading you.”

“What do you mean?”

“T-they ssss-”

“- say -”said Esk, automatically.

“- that there was once a wwww-”

“- wizard -”

“- who started to r-read the Necrotelecomnicon and let his m-mind wwwwww-”

“- wander -”

“- and next morning they f-found all his clothes on the chair and hhis hat on t-top of them and the b-book had -”

Esk put her fingers in her ears, but not too hard in case she missed anything.

“I don't want to know about it if it's horrid.”

“- had a lot more pages.”

Esk took her fingers out of her ears. “Was there anything on the pages?”

Simon nodded solemnly. “Yes. On every sssingle one of ththem there www-”

“No,” said Esk. “I don't even want to imagine it. I thought reading was more peaceful than that, I mean, Granny read her Almanack every day and nothing ever happened to her.”

“I d-daresay ordinary tame www-”

“- words -”

“- are all right,” Simon conceded, magnanimously.

“Are you absolutely certain?” said Esk.

“It's just that words can have power,” said Simon, slotting the book firmly back on its shelf, where it rattled its chains at him. “And they do say the p-pen is mightier than the sss-”

“- sword,” said Esk. “All right, but which would you rather be hit with?”

“Um, I d-don't think it's any use m-me t-telling you you shouldn't be in here, is it?” said the young wizard.

Esk gave this due consideration. “No,” she said, “I don't think it is.”

“I could send for the p-porters and have you t-taken away.”

“Yes, but you won't.”

“I just d-don't www-”

“- want -”

“- you to get hurt, you see. I r-really don't. This can b-be a ddddangerou-”

Esk caught a faint swirling in the air above his head. For a moment she saw them, the great grey shapes from the cold place. Watching. And in the calm of the Library, when the weight of magic was wearing the Universe particularly thin, they had decided to Act.

Around her the muted rustling of the books rose to a desperate riffling of pages. Some of the more powerful books managed to jerk out of their shelves and swung, flapping madly, from the end of their chains. A huge grimoire plunged from its eyrie on the topmost shelf - tearing itself free of its chain in the process - and flopped away like a frightened chicken, scattering its pages behind it.

A magical wind blew away Esk's headscarf and her hair streamed out behind her. She saw Simon trying to steady himself against a bookshelf as books exploded around him. The air was thick and tasted of tin. It buzzed.

“They're trying to get in!” she screamed.

Simon's tortured face turned to her. A fear-crazed incunable hit him heavily in the small of the back and knocked him to the heaving floor before it bounced high over the shelves. Esk ducked as a flock of thesauri wheeled past, towing their shelf behind them, and scuttled on hands and knees towards him.

“That's what's making the books so frightened!” she shrieked in his ear. “Can't you see them up there?”

Simon mutely shook his head. A book burst its bindings over them, showering them in pages.

Horror can steal into the mind via all the senses. There's the sound of the little meaningful chuckle in the locked dark room, the sight of half a caterpillar in your forkful of salad, the curious smell from the lodger's bedroom, the taste of slug in the cauliflower cheese. Touch doesn't normally get a look-in.

But something happened to the floor under Esk's hands. She looked down, her face a rictus of horror, because the dusty floorboards suddenly felt gritty. And dry. And very, very cold.

There was fine silver sand between her fingers.

She grabbed the staff and, sheltering her eyes against the wind, waved it at the towering figures above her. It would have been nice to report that a searing flash of pure white fire cleansed the greasy air. It failed to materialise ....

The staff twisted like a snake in her hand and caught Simon a crack on the side of the head.

The grey Things wavered and vanished.

Reality returned, and tried to pretend that it had never left. Silence settled like thick velvet, wave after wave of it. A heavy, echoing silence. A few books dropped heavily out of the air, feeling silly.

The floor under Esk's feet was undoubtedly wooden. She kicked it hard to make sure.

There was blood on the floor, and Simon lay very quietly in the centre of it. Esk stared down at him, and then up at the still air, and then at the staff. It looked smug.

She was aware of distant voices and hurrying feet.

A hand like a fine leather glove slipped gently into hers and a voice behind said “Ook,” very softly. She turned, and found herself staring down into the gentle, inner-tube face of the librarian. He put his finger to his lips in an unmistakable gesture and tugged gently at her hand.

“I've killed him!” she whispered.

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