Local Branch

Squeaky finished slicing the cheese and arranged it in a flowerburst on the serving tray. She added olives and a few slices of pinkmelon. Amherie liked pinkmelon.

She poured a glass of wine from one of the bottles on the wine rack, and went back to the library.

The library wasn’t a separate room but a sunken conversation pit that Amherie had converted into her “local library“. Here she kept her books from the University at Theresh-tuhmadon: books on natural philosophy, mathematics, theology, and motor-making. More than once Amherie had tried to teach Squeaky to read the cuneiform that the books were written in, the Formal Tongue of philosphers and mathematicians, but it was too difficult and complex for her. No one in Cornerstone could read the Formal Tongue; the library and its books were Amherie’s domain and hers alone.

Squeaky stepped down into the pit and found Amherie just where she had left her: sitting on a floor pillow surrounded by leather books. On a pad of parchment next to her, she took notes in shorthand cuneiform, keeping track of the references to Guardians in different books. For a good part of the afternoon she had been here, flipping pages, laying open books on top of each other, and reading faster than Squeaky thought possible.

Squeaky moved the empty glass of juice out of the way and put the cheese tray down in its place. Then she settled back into the place she had been in for most of the afternoon: sitting on her own floor pillow to watch Amherie.

Amherie had her gold-rimmed spectacles on, and her brow was wrinkled with concentration. Her eyes flicked across the pages.

Amherie was the smartest person Squeaky knew. She had first been a student at the University, later a professor of natural philosophy, before coming to Cornerstone. In the past ten years she had returned several times to the University and came back with more books and stories of the big city. Squeaky could ask Amherie anything, and it seemed like she always had an answer. She understood the nature of substance, water, fire, and air; and, of course, she made motors. Few people knew how to find, machine, and arrange magnets into a stator that would spin for whole falans at a time. Amherie knew the secrets of perpetual motion, and could make motors powerful enough to run the grain wagon, which always before had been pulled by two strong horses.

Nobody had as many books as Amherie did. Not counting the journals in the loft, Squeaky had two books. One was a book of children’s stories she had learned to read with, the other was a book of wisdom poetry that had been in her family for generations.

Suddenly Amherie smiled and used her finger to carefully trace out a line of text. “Here it is!“ she said.

Squeaky slid forward on her pillow. “What? What?“

“I found the name Tok in two places. It occurs once in this book of mythology,“ she raised the book she had been reading. She put it down and moved books around until the she wanted came into view. She pointed at it. “It also occurs here, in this book of genealogies.“


“Yes. Here,“ -- Amherie flipped pages to one she had dog-eared -- “in the lists of the family of Hollsy, of Green Aurora. Do you know where Green Aurora is, Squeaky?“

Squeaky shook her head.

“It’s a week’s walk from here, through the Mountains of Chaos. It used to be one of the Jade Estates.“

“Jade Estates?“

“Yes. One hundred and fifty years ago, the Jade Estates were the largest and most beautiful of the estates. They made bells of bronze big enough for you to stand in.“

“Like the bells at Serena’s Tabernacle?“ Squeaky asked. She had only been to the ancient basilica once, years ago, but she remembered the enormous bells that took four people to ring them. The sound rolled across the countryside as the call of the goddesses.

“Exactly. Those bells, Squeaky, were made at one of the Jade Estates. They made other things too, but it’s the bronze bells that everybody remembers. Anyway, the bloodcough went through the Jade Estates killing one person in two. By the end of it, there weren’t enough people left to maintain the Estates, and they were deserted.“

“How terrible!“

“Yes, it was. But the point is, the family of Hollsy kept detailed genealogical records, and it’s recorded here that shortly before the bloodcough came to Green Aurora, a particular daughter of Hollsy lived on the Estate and cared for its brambletrees. I think she’s Tok.“

Squeaky sat back on the pillow. “I don’t understand. Great-grandmother said Tok was a Guardian.“

“Hold on, hold on.“ Amherie picked up the book again. “This is a book of oral and written myths. Most of the oral is individual families’ traditions, like the book you have of wisdom poetry. There are also prose wisdom collections, and that’s what most of the oral traditions are.“

“How can it be oral if it’s written down?“

“Your book of wisdom has a long oral tradition behind it. Somebody just wrote it down. But there are written traditions that are much older. In this book is a chapter called The Acts of the Guardians. It contains the few Guardian names that are known, and what those Guardians are known to have done -- “

“And Tok is in there?“

“Tok is in there. The Acts of Tok is a short section, but it’s one of the few that describes where a Guardian comes from.“

“Where do Guardians come from Amhee?“

Amherie finally picked up a slice of pinkmelon from the tray and bit into it. Pink juice ran down her chin. Squeaky handed her a napkin. Then Amherie looked at the glass of wine. “Has this always been here, queaky?“

Squeaky laughed. “No, I just brought it.“

“Hm.“ Amherie took a sip and savored the wine on her tongue before swallowing. Then she laid back on her pillow. “Stories of where Guardians actually come from are the rarest. Most Guardian stories are of their work in battle or natural disasters. Few speak of their births.

“Tok was a Guardian. She was last seen a little over a hundred years ago, with other Guardians, during the flood.“

“I know about the flood.“ The flood had come during a long and heavy rainstorm, and the River Zumbriah had overflowed her banks. Whole estates were washed away and many people died. Squeaky didn’t remember any entries in her great-grandmother’s journal about it; maybe there was a fifth journal she hadn’t found yet that had those entries.

Amherie continued. “Many more people would’ve died if the Guardians hadn’t done what they did. They cut down trees and used them to bank up the river and dug trenches to channel the water away from undamaged estates and Theresh-tuhmadon. Then they rebuilt the destroyed estates. Tok is said to have rebuilt the graineries at Mossystone by herself.“

“Mossystone!“ Squeaky said. “That’s only a daywalk from here.“

“Older stories say that the Guardians founded Theresh-tuhmadon and built the great wall around it to protect us. Back then, they supposedly lived openly among us, but later they only appeared in dire times, like when the flood threatened us, or to defend us from invaders. The fighting abilities of Guardians are incredible. They can take wounds that would be mortal to you or I and keep fighting. It’s even said that if a Guardian were to be cut in half by an enemy that she would rise up on her hands and keep fighting.“

It was Squeaky’s turn to be skeptical.

Amherie saw her face and nodded. “I know, it’s hard to believe. You never really know how much of this is history and how much is myth.“

“But where did Tok come from?“

“Remember the Hollsy girl? In The Acts of Tok it says that on her forty-second birthday Hollsy was on a daywalk along the Zumbriah, fasting for wisdom, when a Guardian came to her. This Guardian’s name is unknown, but Hollsy dropped to the ground before her.“ Amherie picked up the book, adjusted her spectacles, and read: “’As the Guardian descended as an angel from the tree before me, I sank my knees into the green loam of Zumbriah. I dared not look up into her eyes. And she said to me, “Rise, daughter of Hollsy. I do not require your reverent service, for I am your servant.“ I rose on trembling legs and stood before her. She said to me, “Daughter of Hollsy, today is your birthday is it not? Your forty-second year under the Arch?“ Mute, I nodded. She said, “Today is the day of invitation. Before All Nature and under the Bright Arch I invite you to join us. Eat of the Tree of Life and live forever; become one of us, become a Guardian of your people. Lay down your old name and rise up with a new one -- the name of Tok.“’“ Amherie put the book down.

Squeaky’s eyes sparkled with delight. “You mean Hollsy became a Guardian?“

“Sounds like it, doesn’t it?“

“Regular people can become Guardians? Oh my! I always thought Guardians were born Guardians.“

“Most people do,“ said Amherie. “But many falans ago some colleagues and I at the University collected and studied the few other passages like this one from among many family records and the ancient written traditions. We came to believe that when a new Guardian is needed, a Guardian approaches a normal person, always on her forty-first birthday, and asks if she would consent to become a Guardian. None of us knew what was meant by ’The Tree of Life’, but the Guardian always mentions it.“

“So Hollsy became Tok?“

“That’s right. I compared the dates on the Hollsy genealogy with the dates given in The Acts of Tok and in your great-grandmother’s journal. Tok only appears after Hollsy disappears from her estate.“ Amherie dog-eared a few more pages, the closed the book. “Aside from her work in the flood, Tok is recorded to have appeared at births to inspect the children. One Act records her appearance after a person named Mibolin gave birth to her first child.“

“Mibolin’s the name in the journal!“

The Acts of Tok records the same event, Squeaky. You see, long ago, it was common for a Guardian to come and inspect a newborn. They would look for sickness and birth defects. I think it was the Guardians’ way of making sure we were all having healthy children who would grow up to be healthy adults. If a newborn was sick or weak or had some other abnormality, the Guardian would take the child and leave with it.“

“What would the Guardian do with the child?“

“No one knows.“

The idea that a Guardian would harm a baby was utterly foreign to Squeaky. Maybe they took them away to be raised among Guardians. “Mom never told me about the Guardian who came to my birth.“

Amherie took off her spectacles and put them on a shelf behind her. Squeaky made a quick mental note of where they were, because sometime soon she would have to get them for her. Amherie was always losing her glasses.

Amherie shook her head. “I doubt very much that there was a Guardian at your birth, or at mine. The Guardians haven’t been seen by anyone for a hundred years. They stopped coming to births and they didn’t appear at the big brush fire twenty years ago. No one alive today has seen a Guardian. My own mother doesn’t remember ever seeing a Guardian.“

Squeaky had grown up with stories of the Guardians. They were angels of mercy who protected and provided for the whole land. If one was lost in the woods, a Guardian would lead the way to safety. If you were traveling far away and fell and broke an ankle, no matter how far away it was, a Guardian would find you and carry you back home.

Admittedly they were fanciful stories, and no one Squeaky knew had ever actually seen a Guardian. And there were stories of why they hadn’t been seen in a while. But just the same, it was sad to hear from a learned person like Amherie that the Guardians were gone.

“Why did they go away?“ Squeaky asked.

“Again, no one knows.“

After a few moments, Squeaky said, “Maybe they were unhappy with us.“

Amherie frowned. “What makes you say that? Everything I’ve read suggests that the Guardians deeply loved us and cared about our welfare.“

“I’ve heard Thetis say that the Guardians are displeased with us. Maybe they’re staying away to teach us a lesson.“

“No, Squeaky, no. The Guardians would never let anger or resentment get in the way of their love for us. That much is certain. A Guardian’s anger with one of us is not mentioned anywhere in the literature, while there are many references to their love and compassion for us.“

“That’s just what Thetis said. Remember? A couple of days ago, when we had that ribbon-winding party? We were all on the floor in front of the fireplace working on the ribbons for the harvest festival. Thetis was talking about the Guardians.“

Amherie shrugged. “I wasn’t paying attention. I was working on the preliminary designs for the ceramic stator. You know I never really listen to Thetis, anyway.“

“Amhee,“ Squeaky said reprovingly. “Thetis isn’t stupid.“

Amherie snorted derisively.

“Really, she’s not. She’s from a small commune. She doesn’t know much beyond where she grew up.“ Squeaky paused. “Neither do I, for that matter.“

“Squeaky, you have sound judgment and a good heart. You’re the kind of person who’s at home wherever she is. Thetis is narrow-minded.“

Squeaky knew she wasn’t going to solve -- if indeed she could solve them at all -- the differences between Thetis and Amherie today. The two just didn’t get along.

Amherie was on the attack. “So where did Thetis hear this, anyway? Did she read it in a throw of her astrology dice? Or did she actually come up with it herself?“

Squeaky didn’t remind Amherie that rolling astrology dice and reading the numbers in a reputable numerology table as a way of gaining knowledge was accepted by many people. “I think she said she read it in a book from Theresh-tuhmadon.“

“What? I doubt that, Squeaky. Almost all the books written in the city come from the University. I was on the Natural Philosophy Board for six years, and nobody there would say or write such claptrap.“

“No, a traveler who stayed here a while back gave her a book that had the University’s seal. I think that was the book she was talking about.“

“Well, I don’t think so,“ Amherie insisted.

“You can ask her about it.“

“I think I will. She needs to be set straight on the University’s teachings on the Guardians. Clearly she’s confused.“

Read Chapter Four