Chapter 2 – part 3

“I can bring the book for you.”

I left the mists of my thoughts and the figure of a short boy materialized in front of me. I’ve heard his voice before, but it took some time for my mind to take over the steer of my body again.

“The book, I can bring it for you” they boy repeated.

I mastered the illusion that I’m always listening to the conversations happening around me, generating universal answers when needed. The boy didn’t waste his words, he talked straight to the point, his gaze pinning me to the ground.

Not being able to read anything from his face  my gaze slid over his medallion with a hourglass symbol, slowly I was piecing it all together. I assessed his blue eyes again, there was a whole deep world beneath them. He sighed, irritated at the prolonged silence.

“Why would you do that for me?” I blurted out.

“Because” he took a deeper breath “I don’t like the idea of knowledge being refused to us, you understand this too.”

I got chills on my back, these words could have as well been spoken by me. My thoughts ran wild – Will he want something in return? Are we more similar than I initially though? Will I be able to learn more about the vampires with his help? Should I share my secret with him? I knew I needed to be cautious, but my instincts were telling me to trust him.

“Imagine” he continued “if you could access all the books in the library at any time you wanted, would you?”

The boy’s question sounded suspicious, but I answered with truth “I would.”

He smiled with approval, expecting my answer.

“Then a key is all we need.”

“But how… you don’t want to…”

“Borrow the key. There is this old Master Herbalist, he keeps forgetting his keys all the time. I can bring you one book, but you can open treasury of information.”

I looked back, the Masters patiently waiting at the doors for students to leave the canteen paid us no attention.

“I don’t even want to think of the kind of punishment we would be given.” The thought of deliberately acting against monastery’s laws mortified me.

“None if we won’t get caught.” he gave me a challenging look “You don’t have to decide now. Think about it.”

“Have you finished yet?” I’ve heard the overseer’s voice from far behind me, the hall was now empty. I turned around to respond and the boy was gone like a shadow.

 

I couldn’t sleep that night. Every time I closed my eyes, the endless possibilities of accepting the boy’s offer were drawn before my eyes. Thoughts running wildly towards the secrets and stories lying dormant on rotting pages of countless books in the library.

I thought about my vampire, alone in the woods, hoping he survived. Wishing I could help him more in any way. Maybe I could. If only there was a way of proving vampires weren’t as evil as our folklore painted them to be. What if there was a way? What if I will never find out, because I’m a coward?

There was no noise, save for one rustling sound and a book appeared under my door. I was surprised to hear no footsteps on the corridor. The boy’s skills were impressive.

I fought with the temptation, but eventually picked the book up from the floor and began my journey.

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Chapter 2 – part 2

My retribution was over, at least for today. Yet there was no rest in sight, now followed the time for individual study. Why it was called this way I will never know, we were being overseen in the library by a set pair of eyes. Like wolves they guarded us from trespassing. There was nothing individualistic about it.

One of the Masters ticked the box next to my name and waited for more unticked boxes to show up. I went forward.

The place itself was stunning. I remembered the first time I entered through those doors like it was yesterday – the spatial interior, the smell of old paper, spines of colourful books’ meticulously laid on shelves that reached the ceiling. Bridges binding corridors on higher levels with ladders for each bookshelf. I remembered the overwhelming feeling of facing the endless knowledge.

As my eyes began to descend I remembered the disappointment I felt the first time reality dawned on me. In a single moment my wings got clipped. I was stripped off of my aspirations and left with a single meager shelf on the ground floor, at the bottom of the wisdom well. Only this and never more.

I gently put back this memory to sleep at the back of my head, where it stubbornly remained an ember. I tried to smother it, I couldn’t afford to carry this disappointment within, yet it persisted.

Like an exemplary student I sat by the table among other students and tried to focus on reading my notes. Opposite me two girls I vaguely recognised continued to have one of those empty conversations.

“It’s a lovely evening, isn’t it?”

“Evening? It’s not even four!”

“Alright, alright! It will be a lovely evening then.”

“Oh yes, I hope so.”

Sometimes I couldn’t believe in the amount of empty words people produced for the sake of saying anything. I shouldn’t be so harsh, but my mind couldn’t find any excuse for this kind of behaviour. Why no one else noticed anything wrong with our world? I needed to run away if only for a moment.

I looked across the hall and frowned, Master Librarian’s desk was unusually empty. Without her here there was no one to enforce rules upon us… I didn’t think twice. I paced the chamber and reached out to a whole new section of knowledge, one I wasn’t interested in – until now. “Of Vampires and Men: One Hundred Years of War” enticed me from the highest shelf, the only source of knowledge that could answer my questions.

“Do you need help, dear?” said a voice behind my back. I stumbled on my toes, almost losing balance. The chubby old overseer was staring at me, back on her duty. My hand instinctively covered my medallion bearing a leaf, but I knew the Master recognised me regardless. Her head tilted as if she couldn’t process why I am where I don’t belong.

“I… was…” My forehead covered in sweat as I dived in my thoughts, hoping to find a convincing excuse. “I was wondering! If… earth was… always covered by the same plants hundred years ago as it is now.” I rushed the few last words as if they could disappear from my head before I voice them.

“Oh dear” she pondered for a bit. There was genuine concerned painted on her face, but it wasn’t a concern for me. Not really. “I don’t think you would find it here.”

I sighed, longingly glancing at Of Vampires and Men as the woman lead me away from it. I noted her posture full of worry for me, her faint smile inviting me to trust her. I wanted to believe she could understand me, but could she?

“Master…” I exhaled deeply “do you think I could borrow a history book? About wars?” She looked back at me eve more confused than before and I instantly knew. I bit my lip.

“Don’t be silly. Why would you do that for?

“To expand my knowledge.” I responded without conviction, the case was lost before it begun.

“Now, now. You are not a historian and you have access to all the books you need, okay? The study plan have been carefully prepared by our ancestors and it had proven to be very successful. Do you want to suggest they had made an error?

“No, I don’t.” My gaze was pinned to the ground now. The Master genuinely wanted to help, she just didn’t understand the point of questioning old rusty rules that has been the same for centuries. She had all the answers, but no questions.

“Okay” – she reassured herself – “Is it because of the upcoming exams? If so – don’t worry! Everyone goes through them. And even if you don’t do well, there is a place for everyone in the monastery.”

I nodded, sometimes there is no point in fighting back. I carried my rebellion quietly.

Chapter 2 – Dreams that cannot come true

I was back in the monastery, choking on my duties, suffocating on expectations, drowning. Again.

I felt the doors of the old world closing on me, as I was leaving my individuality at its gate, as an offering for the monastery. The thought of not running away when I had the chance stung my disappointed heart with regret.

I accepted my reality for what it was – being a part of mislead organisation I once believed in. I believed in the idea, but it got contorted, crooked and corrupted so much, that the original intent was gone. Now we were all parts of this big structure that existed for the sake of existing, sustaining itself, but running blindly without a direction.

I let myself believe in the beautiful illusion everyone preferred to see, that I preferred to see. I had hoped I can change the world to be a better place for everyone, but before I knew it, I ended up living the mundane life. Disillusioned, I realised that people are only people and nothing can be perfect, not even an idea, no matter how pure.

There was no escape in sight, because joining the monastery is for forever. I swore an oath to serve it till the end of my days and so my life was sealed, it wasn’t mine to decide anymore. This choice was mine and only mine and I had to deal with the consequences.

There were days I was dreaming of transforming the institution anew, of making a change in the world, of… belonging. Sometimes I would try and swim against the current, only to be brought back to my place.

   All of these hopes were short lived and left me feeling empty, except for one – that day in the woods where I saved a life, despite me being punished for it. The memory of it burned in me with a sense of… purpose.  

Even tedious act of moving wet rag on a dirty floor couldn’t deprive me of it. I got a suitable punishment for my transgressions, with a pinch of humiliation to wash down the disobedience off me.

  I have felt the gazes of my peers upon me as they were finishing their meal, I’ve heard they whispered my name, gossiped about me as they were leaving to rest, leaving me here kneeling to a dirty rag.

“Look who’s washing the dishes again. It’s midget!”

“What did you do this time midget?

I looked back, surprised, at first I thought they were talking to me, but instead I saw a short boy collecting plates from remaining tables. He didn’t say a word, his face didn’t express anything at all.

I looked around, two masters stood at the exit doors, but they didn’t pay attention to few remaining students in the hall. It wasn’t right. My heart wanted to stand up for the boy, but my mind vouched against it, it could bring him more harm than help.

I have felt an instant connection with the boy, if only because he was being punished by the system – like me, I couldn’t help, but wonder what was his fault.

When I entered the kitchen, everyone working in there had already left, except for the boy. I put the bucket and rags on the floor and observed him for a while. I wanted to connect with him, but I didn’t know how. For too long I have been surrounded with people happily following orders and now I was afraid I might be putting too much hope already on a stranger I haven’t even spoken to yet.

The boy looked at me with the same expressionless face. I swallowed way too loudly, before I decided to offer a few words of comfort “Hey… I just wanted to say… don’t worry about their mockery. They’re not worth it.”

He observed me for a longer while as if contemplating his answer, the longest few seconds of my life, then he turned his head away again with a simple “I know.”

I blinked and raised my brow. I open my mouth to close it again, the boy wasn’t even looking at me anymore. I am not sure what was I expecting, but it wasn’t that. Maybe it was just another dream that I couldn’t make true.

Chapter 1 – part 2

I pressed again, all worried now that I might be forced to press my mouth against his to transfer some breath in. I knew I should be doing that, but I was hoping I might just avoid it altogether. The boy’s body wriggled and he started coughing profusely. I felt relieved, he rolled to his side and was gasping for air.

“It’s okay.” – I reassured him with a smile. “I pulled you out of the river. You… must have fallen in and then there was the waterfall…” I pointed towards it.

“River?” He looked at the waterfall. “I fell…yes…”

Satisfied I drew attention to his cuts and bruises, no doubt caused by the violent thrashing of the river. I had nothing to cover his body with, I could only hope he didn’t get hypothermia. However I possessed bandages and the necessary ingredients gathered today to prepare a disinfecting cream, including the amaranth flower. I sighed deeply and prepared a crude cream with my small mortar, while the boy lied on the ground, exhausted.  

I began to patch up his arm cuts and jolted as he flinched,  our eyes met I had no doubt he would have ran had he been in a better state. I had never seen such dark eyes as his.

“This will help” I explained.

To my surprise his body relaxed and he smiled to me. As his fangs exposed themselves my stomach churned and my heart sank. A chill ran down my spine to the sudden realization; he was not a human… No, he was from the other side if the forest where vampires reside.

I have never met one of them and nor did anyone for ages now. As far as I could remember people even said they left this part of the world. I couldn’t remember much more than that, but I did remember that they were always mention as dangerous and hostile being, feeding predominantly on blood of their prey. All this was very much in the opposition to my experience.

The boy lied next to me wasn’t dangerous, he was peaceful, he allowed me to treat his wounds, his shy demeanor was overwhelmed by the confusion. No, if anything he was vulnerable. I felt he would not hurt me even if he wanted to.

I hesitated for the brief moment, but life was life, I thought, every life deserves to be saved.

“What are you doing here?”

I asked as softly as possible, I tried not to sound interrogative, but I was unsure if I managed. His hidden face hinted at nothing. It seemed as if he was… resigned. I regretted asking the question.

“I got lost.” he said looking not looking at me at all, as if ashamed.

“That makes two of us.” I smiled trying to reassure him. I pointed to one of his wider cuts.

“May I?”

He frowned surprised, but nodded. I tore a strip of cloth and continued my work. He winced a few times, but apart from that didn’t say a word.

“You… saved me.” he whispered and I felt chills all over my body again at his sudden realization.

I was exhausted, but happy, ashamed of my initial falter but also everything was telling me that it was meant to be. The lesson, the squirrel, everything seemed like it was crafted by some higher being. My life suddenly received a special meaning just because of here and now: I saved one life and that meant everything.

It wasn’t long before I heard distant voices calling my name.

“Eve! Eve!”

I recognised voices of my masters in them, they found me finally, but I wasn’t lost anymore. I looked at the vampire and I could tell he was tense again, unsure of his future. Yet he did not move, merely looked back at me, passively waiting for me to decide about his fate for the second time this evening.

I looked at the light coming from the search party as it approached from the downstream. I did not have time to decide,I was torn between releasing the boy and revealing the truth to the masters. I have never lied to anyone before, let alone the authorities. Oath of honesty was one we had to swore, when joining the order.

I looked into the boy’s dark eyes and dismissed the thought of surrendering him to the masters, I could not betray him. It was a matter of life and death and I chose life. I did not want to leave him there alone, but it was the better choice. I put a hand on his arm and squeezed gently.

“I have to go” I said apologetically and I ran to the search party not looking back.

“There you are child!” said the harsh voice of my head teacher. “What on earth made you run away into those dark woods alone?!”

“A squirrel took the last amaranth flower and I chased it.” I confessed.

“Well, did you catch it?”

“No.” I lied with a tint of sadness as I remembered why I run away from my group in the first place. “No, I haven’t.”

The teacher expressed her disappointment, but I wasn’t listening anymore. I knew a punishment awaited me for all the trouble I had caused but it was just a pale shadow of the day’s events that – I was sure of it – changed the course of my life forever.

Chapter 1 – Trials

The day of field herbal classes. That was when my life changed.

We left the safety of the city walls and headed into the woods. While I scanned my surroundings for required materials, the other girls giggled and whispered. The gossip never interested me, so I stayed off the side. I was already an outsider, but all their talk made me feel like I didn’t belong even more.

I spent most of my life here, in the monastery. I felt a strong calling when I first joined as a kid, it was all I ever wanted back then. Slowly it turned into following rules and mundane work instead of praying and helping others. I ended up doing what was expected of me, fulfilling my duties and learning my trade. It was now how I imagined it at all. I tried not to lose my hope, but it was getting more and more difficult.

What was even worse was that I seemed to be the only odd element here, everyone else somehow managed to fit in. I couldn’t figure out why I felt so trapped and what was wrong with me.

Sometimes I was praying to God for a sign. The great Wisdom in the sky that created us and was meant to guide us, but he remained silent. I decided to try harder, to change my life in that way, I didn’t know if it will work.

The determination to get the highest mark was driving me, but it was not as easy as it sounded. I had to find and gather precise mix of ingredients and prepare a cream out of them later in the lab. I did not have a plan, merely a conviction that my life is changing today.

Every now and then I leaned to pick herbs I needed. The walk wasn’t long and I knew that soon we will reach less forested area and our class will end there. When I saw the sunlight getting through the treetops more frequently, I knew I didn’t have much time. I looked down into my bag, there were still things missing, but I couldn’t give up.

We reached the meadow and stopped there. Above the tree tops some of the highest towers of the monastery were visible. There was more to the city than just our headquarters but the monastery was the most prominent part of it, the center of its law and power. I was tense, nervously counting my herbs. There was only one left that I needed, I was so close.

“Okay, girls!” – Master herbalist’s loud voice was echoing among the trees. Fifteen pair of eyes looked up to our biology teacher’s wrinkled face in anticipation. “We will stay here quarter of an hour longer, so you can find any remaining ingredients. Then we will head back.” – She said giving us all hope and headed to sit on the only stone in the clearing.

The amaranth flower was a rare plant and it was clear there will not be enough for each girl to include in their recipe. Of course a different cream could be made of the remaining herbs, but that would not secure me the highest mark. During our walk here I noticed several amaranths, but each time too late as there was always someone who beat me to it.

While I was lost in my thoughts of imminent failure a squirrel jumped on the ground in front of me. I smiled to my new friend, the animal paused to observe me too. My eyes quickly moved towards the red colour the animal was holding in its jaw… the amaranth flower, last thing I needed!

I quickly glanced back, the rest of the group was further away, occupied with their searches. I reached out for the amaranth flower in the critter’s mouth as slow as possible, but alarmed, it scurried away from me. I had no time to lose, without thinking I chased after it.

I kept moving further and further away from the group, but the stakes were too high to let it go. The squirrel made its final mistake when it climbed a tree and the flower slipped from its teeth. I picked it up, triumphant and ready to go back. Then I turned around and saw deep dark forest. I sunk in dread as I realized the woods appeared identical in all directions. The forest itself never caused me any fear, rather it had an alluring sense of wild nature, but I lost my sense of navigation and my fears were let loose.

Well done, this time you have surely outdone yourself, I thought. I imagined the angry monastery Masters and what punishment they would  choose for my misadventure. So this is how my attempt to turn the wheel of fortune ends up with – straying in the forest. I frowned and clenched my fist, but there was no one to blame than myself. I failed again.

I picked the direction at random and walked forward. At first I tried to convince myself I was still able to find the group, before my absence was noticed, but when the sun began to set, I worried if I would ever find my way back. I spent enough time in the woods that I was sure the class have finished long ago and presumably everyone came back to the city.

What if they did not notice my absence? My stomach curled and I understood there might be something more at stake than a punishment, I could be lost forever. I dismissed the thought, but it was difficult to think of anything else when the bitter cold of the evening surrounded me. I braced myself against the chill, yet the white linen robe provided little warmth and I feared the worst. Am I going to die here? – I thought.

“Stupid flower!” – I screamed and threw the plant in rage and leaned on the nearest tree. My body weakened out of cold and frustration. Tears ran down my cheeks and on my robe. I tasted the bitterness of my recklessness, before wiping the remaining tears with my hand. I tried to calm myself down, but my rational thinking failed me the moment I needed it most.

Soft murmur of a river reached my ears and I stood up hastily, energized with new hope. I knew the river flowed through our city and could become my guide back home. I just needed to follow it downstream and it will lead me to the monastery. 

I picked the amaranth flower, put it back to the bag and fumbled my way through the now half-dark forest. 

As I was strolling alongside the river the soft murmur of the water, chirping of crickets and rustling of leaves calmed my stress and left me with unfamiliar feeling – a place I belonged. If not for the coldness it would be perfect. I wondered why I could never feel that way in the monastery.

Part of me was still scared, but another part… was glad to be away from the ever-present guards and masters of the monastery. I had never felt so alone and yet I never felt so… free.

I reached a waterfall and hurried my way down to enjoy the view as the sun was about to set. It was stunning – water cascaded over bare rocks and dropped a few meters down. I decided to linger here for a while longer, before going further on my way. It was not often that we would be allowed outside monastery walls  and thus enjoying such wonders of nature.

Suddenly my eyes had caught a dark shape floating towards the fall. I squinted my eyes, trying to see better – it appeared to be some kind of dark animal, lifelessly being carried by the water current and falling over the edge of the waterfall. As I watched it, I felt terror gripping my heart – it was not an animal, it was more than likely a human. I blamed myself for noticing it so late. The body didn’t struggle for its life during the fall, it must have been unconscious. I ran towards the shore and froze seeing the cold water at the foot of the waterfall.

I paced the shore here and back, tapping my foot from time to time. I crossed my arms, uncrossed them and crossed them again. I can wait for the body to resurface, I tried to excuse myself.

The river seemed shallow, but I wasn’t even a good swimmer. I tested the water and pulled back from the freezing cold sensation. I paced the shore some more, debating the emergency. I should go in the water. I checked the temperature again, it was still freezing. But I might die from hypothermia. – I tried to reason with myself. – The human seemed unconscious, it won’t breathe the water in. I turned around again and looked at the whirlwinds under the waterfall. But it might drown. I looked up to the sky, I felt so powerless. I wish someone would save us both.

As I debated with myself, the body floated up for a brief moment before being pushed further by the current’s internal whirls. I looked down the river and noticed a place with a lone tree, growing closer to the water, I run towards that. I grabbed the its trunk and extended my other arm to catch the oncoming body. I almost lost it, but in the last moment the water current miraculously pushed it towards me. I almost lost the grip on the body’s wet clothes, but my grip held tight and I dragged the body with all my strength onto the shore.

I rolled onto my back and panted, it was not yet over. I turned towards the body, it was a boy. I was never this close to any male in the monastery, we were usually kept in separate groups and our paths rarely crossed. I moved my face closer to his, I couldn’t sense his breath. I started pressing my hands down his chest, hoping I can squeeze the water out of him. Nothing.