"Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power."
The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss
"Babies are THE worst."
"No seriously. You have no idea what it's like. It's… it's…"
"Exactly. THE worst."
"I think you mentioned that."
"Sometimes I just wish-"
"Stop. Never wish for things you don't mean. Trust me."
"But I do wish-"
"I do wish you still lived at home."
Sarah exhaled with a laugh. "Why, so I could help change diapers? Been there done that. And you're right. Baby brothers ARE the worst."
"Aren't I though? Beware my rapier wit."
"I think Karen refers to it as a 'smart mouth'."
"She's not wrong. My mouth is a genius. And Karen's name is mom to you, bucko," Sarah chided gently.
"Smooth segue. You call her Karen."
"And you call her mom. Nice try. Look, I've got to go. Talk later, okay?"
"Look at it this way, Karen can't baby you anymore."
"No, now I will suffer from middle child syndrome and end up with sociopathic tendencies."
"Help your mom and lay off the daytime TV – even on break."
"Later, kiddo." Sarah hung up the phone and snorted. All things considered, Toby was handling the newest addition to their family with more grace than she had in his shoes. And he was only 10. To be fair, the newest addition was a bit of a "surprise" to them all, not least of all Karen who'd assumed her sudden hormonal changes were the early onset of menopause, and her father who'd assumed his vasectomy had… well, worked. He joked about suing the doctor. At least they all assumed it was a joke. Hard to tell with lawyers.
Baby Max, while unexpected, was a dimpled, little ball of delight and despite the wide age range of his children, Robert Williams was pretty darned happy to be a father again. He'd assumed the next babe on his knee would be a grandchild, but he'd take another son. He'd not always been the best of fathers – work demanded so much of his time – but now that he was a senior partner he was able to delegate more. He planned to make up for lost time and he'd made that clear to all of his children, not least of all his oldest.
Sarah flicked on the coffee maker, while mentally tallying how many cups she'd had already. Fuck it - the mantra of beleaguered grad students everywhere. It was Saturday but that meant nothing in her world. She glanced longingly at the TV and the stack of VHS tapes next to it, then reluctantly pulled her eyes back to the dining table strewn with library books, all likely overdue, and the stacks of papers festively dotted with coffee rings. She'd take a dirty diaper right about now.
One last glance at the TV.
She knew Willow was still sitting in the VCR. It was due back at the video store today. It would be silly not to watch it one more time before it had to go back…
Sarah determinedly sat down with her back to the living room and switched on her ghetto blaster. The angsty croon of REM soon drown out the furious scratches of pen on paper.
Theses. Theses are THE worst.
She should have taken that opportunity in Ireland. Another furtive glance at the TV. Or not. If binge watching TV was too much of a distraction, then an adventure in a foreign country would probably completely mess up her life. She'd treat herself to a trip when it was all done and she'd successfully defended it. She'd drink too much beer, dance all night in pubs and kiss a dark-haired Irish rogue in the moonlight… in the ruins of a castle… with the sounds of the Irish Sea in the background…
GOD DAMMIT, concentrate, Sarah! Even her fantasy life was beginning to sound contrived.
Fuck it. She clicked the music off and began gathering up her books and notes. Half an hour later found her in the Master's section of the library, crammed into a little cubicle. She promised herself that if she could get a solid four hours of research done she'd give herself the rest of the day off. Maybe take a run, do a little shopping, Thai takeout for dinner.
It wasn't that her research was dry. It was a topic that held a lot of interest for her, but doing the same thing every day, ad nausea - forever it seemed, could make even the most dedicated of academics go crazy. Whoever said forever was not long at all was an abject liar.
Sarah stilled, her skin prickling. She didn't often let little slip-ups like that happen. In fact she did what she could to avoid them – stave off memories that were as vivid as they were confusing. She knew exactly who'd said that. The eponymous figure of girlhood fantasy. One she'd logically reduced to pure delusion. Boxed, crated and stored away... this made these occasional slip ups all the more pernicious. It was easy to deny. It was not as easy to forget.
The sound of a book hitting the floor broke her reverie and Sarah turned to see the offender. Barbara, one of the library's senior librarians, was bent over trying to coax the fallen book back into her stack. Naturally she dropped them all. Some very un-librarian like words followed, coupled with murderous glares from the other Master's students who considered even sneezing to be an unconscionable transgression.
Sarah slid out of her chair to help.
"Oh, Sarah, thank you."
"No problem, Barbara," she whispered back. She'd learned right away that if you wanted your research to go smoothly you always befriended the librarians. She followed her back to her desk and sat the books down on the corner of it.
"I don't normally see you here on Saturdays."
"Yes, well, I needed to concentrate."
Barbara chuckled. "And how is that going?"
"Fantastically awful. Doesn't help that I'm working through some of the dullest stuff right now. Not everyone can write. And of those that can, not every one should."
"I'd be out of a job if they didn't."
"And I'd have nothing to blame my procrastination on." Sarah smiled ruefully. "Point taken."
"To terrible writers then." Barbara took a sip of her coffee and gagged. "And terrible cafeteria coffee." She took another sip and then eyed it. "Actually this might have been from yesterday."
"Well, rest assured that once I graduate, my lofty degree will guarantee me a career where I will brew only the very best in caffeinated beverages."
"Oh that reminds me! THE book you requested FINALLY arrived." The older woman fumbled in her desk drawer and withdrew a set of keys. "It came in yesterday and I finished processing it this morning. Do you want to go now?"
"THE book? Oh God, yes! Just let me get my stuff." Sarah hurried over to her workstation, sweeping her texts into her over-sized bag in one motion, and catching up again with Barbara at the little used elevator. Barbara was holding the doors open.
Once inside, the librarian inserted the key into the lock beside the 5th floor button before pressing it. It was the only elevator in the building that led to the equally little used windowless fifth floor. All the others ended at the fourth. Old architecture and budget cuts meant that it had never been changed. Sarah surmised security was also a factor.
When the doors opened again, Sarah was hit with the distinctive scent of vellum, parchment and dust. She could feel the air change of the climate controlled floor. 'The Rare Book Collection', read a prominent sign at the end of a short hallway, and below that a lengthy list of rules that Sarah knew were rigidly enforced. She deposited her coffee travel mug - rule number 3 - on a small table and pulled a pair of cotton gloves out of the adjacent box - rule number 2 - as Barbara unlocked the door. The room was swathed in the dim red glow from the security lights. There were no windows; sunlight was anathema to both leather and ink as old as that housed within. Barbara turned on one of the few table lamps. Sarah pulled a pad of paper and a pencil out – no pens was rule number 8 - and stowed her bag under the large oak table.
Sarah had loved this room from the moment she'd first been permitted inside as a thesis candidate. Words held power and this room was manifest. Part of Sarah always felt like a little girl allowed to use fine bone china for the first time. There was the constant fear of breaking such a delicate thing, but to be invited into this realm was, in and of itself, an honour. She was being trusted with something precious. A little girl in an adult's world. One of knowledge. Of magic. Looking around at the tall shelves and locked glass cases, she hoped she never lost that awe.
Barbara returned and carefully laid a leather book on the table before her. "Here you go. I'm surprised those stingy bastards let it leave their sight. It only took, what months, for the approval?"
Sarah nodded absently and ran a cotton-clad finger lightly across the dyed leather. She traced the embossed knot work design.
"From what I gather, a wealthy donor died and bequeathed it. And with another copy in their collection they agreed to lend it out. Quid Pro Quo, naturally."
The sound of a pager interrupted.
Barbara glanced at the number and then her eyes widened. "Dammit! I forgot about the meeting!" She flicked her watch in accusation and grimaced. "I have to run… and you know the rules. A staff member must be in the room at all times…" Her eyes softened. "…But it's Saturday and we're understaffed today anyway. And I am ridiculously late and being paged by his holiness." As if to punctuate the point the pager went off again. Barbara hesitated and then pulled something from her pocket. "I am leaving you this key. You know where to put it when you're through. This is the only key. ONLY. Key. DO. NOT. LOSE. IT. And don't bring anyone else in. Understand? Or I'll be out of a job and you won't get to graduate and nab that cushy coffee house career you're so looking forward to."
Sarah's lips twitched as she accepted the holy grails of library keys - not counting the one to the staff liquor cabinet they thought none of the grad students knew about. It paid to befriend librarians.
"Don't forget the lamp. The book goes back in there," Barbara pointed to one of the glass cases, "when you're through. Lock the door. I won't be back in today, but I'll stop in tomorrow to make sure everything is fine." Barbara emphasized the last word.
Sarah solemnly nodded again. I won't break the china, mum.
"You know how valuable that book is." Barbara opened the door and then hesitated again. "Seriously. Please. Or forget about coffee, we'll both be asking if you want fries with that."
"I promise. And thank you. Honestly!" Sarah heard the pager go off again, if possible, even more shrilly. "Run. Or you really will be looking for a new job." Sarah was on the Dean's list and as such had hob knobbed with his holiness on numerous occasions. She did not envy Barbara. Luckily Barbara was well-endowed and the Dean had both wandering eyes and a conveniently estranged wife. As a librarian, Barbara was well versed in managing her assets.
The staccato click of heels and the faint hum of the elevator followed and then went silent, leaving only the white noise of the carefully controlled ventilation system. The desk lamp was the only real source of light, leaving the rest of the room in shadow. Barbara hadn't bothered turning on anything else. And Sarah didn't bother to either.
The university boasted a surprisingly well-stocked rare collection. Most of it had been gifted by the original family of the university's founder. It has been fleshed out by subsequent donors. And as such, the library was able to rotate the collection out and in turn borrow exquisite treasures from other collections. The security measures and the climate control were relatively modern, but the rest of the room was period preserved. The ornate shelves were solid stained oak, as were the few tables and chairs. What little of the walls was not covered in wood, were painted a dark matte burgundy. The desk lamps were brass. Gleaming glass cases punctuated the room. The security lights lent everything an under glow of red. Sarah realized she had never before been alone in the room and probably never would be again. The feeling was momentous, decidedly eerie, but not entirely unwelcome. It felt like finding a secret room and being in danger of getting caught any minute. This, while unlikely, was not far from the truth. And the thrill, Sarah found, was more than a little delicious.
Her eyes dropped to the book in front of her. And oh God, what a thrilling Saturday it had turned out to be indeed.
Easing the cover open carefully, mindful of the fragile binding, Sarah held her breath for a moment. The Poetic Edda, otherwise known as the Codex Regius, was in her cotton covered fingers. It was the most important source on Norse mythology in existence. She had read Hollander's translation of it, arguably the best, and even owned a copy of Cottle's translation, the oldest known English translation, but this copy was on an entirely different level. In her hands lay one of the original rebound editions from the 17th century, possibly even earlier. The fact that Iceland had lent it at all was a miracle, and no doubt a bureaucratic minefield. She could only thank her thesis advisor for that boon. An ex-pat of prestigious reputation and notable connections, he'd no doubt pulled some serious strings. Part of her felt guilty for getting to see it first, but thank God for Saturdays because she'd never learned to wait.
Bending down, she pulled out a translated copy of Sturluson's The Prose Edda, Hollander's translation of The Poetic Edda, and an Old Norse to English reference dictionary from her Poppins-esque shoulder bag. She set them to the side of the manuscript. Sarah showed a natural aptitude for languages and had been taking classes, with additional tutoring from her thesis adviser, since beginning her research. All of it felt like a crescendo to this moment.
An inked-copy of the knot on the leather cover similarly adorned the first page. Sarah examined it more closely. The presence of the knot in and of itself was not unusual, but the fact that she had never seen it replicated in any of the later or modern editions was surprising. She skimmed through Hollander's translation just to be certain. Sarah chewed her lip. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled and she rubbed them absently, adjusting her mess of hair, and glancing once more around the dark room. The silence was suddenly heavier. She couldn't even detect the thrum of the ventilation anymore, although the lack of an ear-piercing alarm suggested it must still be working.
The uneven pages of the manuscript were of a texture Sarah couldn't immediately identify. Given the nature of her research, she had come into contact with many types of vellum, parchment, and paper. She'd have to follow up on it later. She assumed some type of thorough dating had been done on it. Barbara would have the records somewhere for insurance purposes. The Old Norse was recognizable though and the lettering incredibly well-preserved. She carefully flipped forward in the book, stopping to marvel at the clarity of the artwork throughout. Beasts and knots and gods and mortals… The printing looked to be similar to Iron Gall ink, as in the more famous Book of Kells, although the colours were somehow more vivid. Occasional words and even entire passages jumped out at her, assuring her that her language training had been well worth the cost and the energy. Words had power. Translation was like filtering light; it muted and dulled. This was pure and unadulterated, she thought giddily. Frig, she was such a nerd.
She paused on another page and the wayward hairs on her neck prickled again.
"That can't be right…"
She flipped back to Hollander's translation. There appeared to be an extra lay with a title she'd never seen before. Sarah dug through her bag to find an Icelandic edition and began thumbing through the copy, counting as she went. She did the same with Hollander's edition. And then meticulously began again with the ancient tome. "Impossible…"
Her eyes skated over the leather, noting the pages and studying the ink. She'd need to consult with the professor on Monday. It had to be a mistake. The idea was patently ridiculous. So it was likely just a oversight… a very old oversight? And yet she couldn't help but wonder if she held one of the, if not the, oldest editions of The Poetic Edda in existence.
She had no idea what possessed her to do it, especially if it was true. She'd certainly question why she'd done it later. Sarah peeled the cotton gloves from her fingers and dropped them on the table beside her. She knew how fragile old manuscripts were, how damaging oils from skin could be, and she knew, inexorably, that she was holding a Skaldic cultural treasure. Her fingers trembled. She could feel the blood pounding in her ears, but she had to touch it without a barrier. Just like Sleeping Beauty touched the spindle, she thought deliriously. Tolkien himself could not have resisted. There was no choice but this one.
The page was cool beneath her finger tips and surprisingly smooth; the ink was raised enough that she could feel the words even as she read them. They thrummed against her skin - like a guitar string that had been plucked – the vibration working its way up her arm. Into her. The animal part of her brain kicked into control.
Take your hand away, Sarah!
She immediately noticed that the room was darker - the red glow of the security lights had gone out.
Sarah startled, her fingers still splayed on the page and her eyes darting to the door, and through its glass, the elevator.
Just a fellow student likely. She'd forgotten to wear a watch today, but the library saw students come and go at all hours.
The third floor was the most popular. It had cozy couches and a slew of rooms for study groups. It also housed the majority of the general collection.
Sarah blinked, watching as goose bumps broke across the surface of her skin - her hand still frozen in its illicit act. The grad students used the 4th floor. She waited for the telltale swish of the doors.
The hum of the cables was louder now. Closer. Her eyes dropped to the key on the table. Only key. It wouldn't stop on the 5th without it. And then turned back to the elevator. The hallway seemed to narrow and expand in an ocular illusion.
Sarah snatched her hand off the book, clutching it to her chest guiltily – wide eyes trained on the elevator doors.
The doors opened.
First of all, for those of you who have read my previous story, there is no connection to Goblin Market in terms of narrative, even if I allude to it for funsies or if the premise of the student seems similar. So for any new readers, no need to read it first. Secondly, I have never been to Iceland (unlike Ireland), I am not well versed in much to do with Iceland and have a much poorer grasp on Norse mythology than Irish (however much I am fan) so bear with me. An interest was sparked and I am learning as I go. Thirdly, because I like my GK the way I like my beer (dark), this will be a similar GK to the Goblin Market. If you liked him in that story you'll (hopefully) like him in this one. If you didn't, well, you follow. Same with Sarah. No wilting flowers here. Lots of fighting the inevitable, tension and sweet, sweet smut… eventually. After lots of fights. Expect a little more Toby in this one, as well as some new original characters (including the baby) and some of the original characters from Goblin Market may make an appearance.
The title of this story was inspired by The Tanglewood Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne and also by an inked painting of a twisted forest that I grew up with in my childhood home. My mother still has it.
Theses is the plural of thesis. Perhaps you knew this. I did not know this. I think it looks weird. I think it sounds weird. But I used it.
The Poetic Edda or Codex Regius exists and is considered the bible of Norse mythology. It was likely written in the 13th century (although anywhere from 1000-1300 A.D. is possible). Scholars are still attempting to date the poems, so in theory it may be even older and the origins of the poems are still undecided. Therefore I feel free to take (respectful) creative licence with it.
J.R.R Tolkien was heavily influenced by The Poetic Edda. He totally would have touched it.
All translated texts referenced do exist. Check 'em out.
"Lay" refers to a passage or story in the Edda.
I know canon (i.e. the manga we shall all pretend doesn't exist) states Sarah's stepmom's name is Irene, but I started out with the fanon – and Karen sort of stuck.