— OF BOOKS AND PRIDE —
The small tavern was quiet in the hours of early morning. Bire the keeper rested by the window and polished a mug methodically on his sleeve. As he looked out the window, scanning for customers, he saw the boy sitting by the road.
He was a young boy, six or seven, and thin besides; a shock of dark, straight hair fell in neglected locks over his forehead. His bare feet, crossed under him, poked out of ragged trousers that had long gone unwashed, and his shirt was in a similar condition. There was nothing, on an ordinary day, to set him apart from any of the other poor children wandering through the streets; nothing except a hint of unusual intelligence and good breeding behind those thin, clear-cut features and thoughtful grey eyes.
But today there was something else. Sprawled across the boy’s lap was an enormous book, the hardened binding frayed and worn, looking heavier than a half-grown pup as it rested on those small knees.
Bire moved thoughtfully to the door and opened it, crossing the road to approach the boy. “What is that you have, Mordred Kenhelm?”
Mordred looked up, a look of slight displeasure on his young face which would have been a scowl if it had been any stronger; as it stood, it was a mere hint of irritation, and a most unchildlike expression. “It is a book, Bire of the Fat Lamb.”
Bire made a gesture as though to dismiss the words. “That I know. What I meant to say is, how did you come by such a book?”
“It is my father’s.”
“And how did he come to have it?” The Kenhelm family might not be native to Rehirne, and certainly no-one knew what their history was, but judging by their present state of poverty, Bire considered it dubious that they had been anything of importance. He would not have expected them to own a book.
Mordred shrugged, seeming to ask, Why would I care? “I do not know. He has had it for a long time — and other things.”
“And what are you doing with this book, Mordred Kenhelm?”
“I am reading it.”
He grunted his incredulity, and Mordred’s dark head jerked up, his wide mouth unsmiling and his chin jutting up proudly. “I am reading it — not very well maybe, but I am reading it all the same.”
Bire held up his hands. “Peace, lad. Very well, if you can read it, then suppose you read some to me and prove your knowledge? I cannot read, and I am curious to know what is in these things.”
Mordred hesitated, as though fearing he would be laughed at again. “I will read to you,” he said finally, “but I will skip some words. I do not like to read them aloud if I cannot pronounce them properly.”
Bire gave a shrug and nod of assent, and Mordred scanned the blocks of writing across the large yellowed page until he had found his place again. His voice came unsteadily out over the cold, grey morning.
“And the — the following king of Rodron was called Hirlon King, and he made a… with his nephew who was living in Gontland. Then he trav— traveled again to Dirion, and spoke with his kinsmen there con-cer-ning the state of affairs in the alliance.” Mordred paused; apparently the next portion was filled with too many unfamiliar words for his taste, and there was a longer interval before he picked up. “And his servants wore gold at their wa— their waists, and there was outcry because of the… of Hirlon. Many lords were angered and said that he was bringing back the time of Huras the Black, but this was — unjus-justified.” Mordred fell silent and glanced up at Bire, as though daring him to criticize his fumbling performance.
Bire was certainly in no mood to criticize; the boy had done what he himself and most of the other villagers were quite incapable of doing, and Bire was impressed. “Well done, lad,” he said; “very well done. Did you teach yourself?”
“I have watched my father and my mother read. After that I taught myself a little, and my older brother helped me. I am teaching Fenris now,” he added, his voice softening and bursting with pride.
But he had one thing to say, and as a prospective customer approached down the road and he turned to hurry back to the Fat Lamb, he said quickly, “Do not skip the words, Mordred Kenhelm. ’Tis better to look a smaller fool once than — than not to tell the whole story.”
It was awkwardly framed, the statement; yet it was the best he could do to put into words the uneasiness that had touched him with its swift, dark finger. There had been such a hot pride there — “I do not like to read the words” — more than a child’s ordinary self-consciousness, and Bire’s muddled, musing heart feared where it might lead him in the end…