Joan was aware of the time. She would run out of dark hours, and needed to get back before daybreak—before anyone missed her—but she wanted more answers, and Joan didn’t know when, if ever, she’d get the chance to speak with Tim again.
“How does someone even become a storyteller in a world of no stories?” she asked.
“My mother was a storyteller,” Tim said, shrugging his shoulders and staring down at his feet.
She could tell by his demeanor that something tragic had happened, and it wasn’t difficult to guess what. Storytellers were considered terrorists, and they were relentlessly hunted and mercilessly executed. Joan thought it best not to say anything and waited for Tim to continue.
“They killed her,” he said after a moment. “I don’t even know how old I was. Maybe about ten.”
“She taught you story telling?”
“Not really,” Tim answered. “I think she tried to protect me from danger. But she taught me enough to give me the inclination later. She left me these.”
Tim moved to the back of the cave where some tapestries hung. He pushed one aside to reveal a deep recess where the cave continued. Tim got to his knees and reached far into the tiny passage. He pulled out what looked like thick account ledgers.
“Are those books?” asked Joan.
“Yes. My mother left them for me.” He held three dark brown leather-bound volumes in a stack. “They were stolen from the king’s library a long time ago.”
Joan stepped closer. “May I look?” she asked, thinking the storyteller would say no.
“It’s getting late,” replied Tim. “Maybe you can take one with you.”
His suggestion astonished her. Books were rare items, and Tim was offering her one so casually. She gently lifted the top volume from the stack, testing the weight. Though heavier than her account ledger, it felt comfortable. The spine fit perfectly in her palm, as if it belonged there, as if it had finally returned after a long absence. Joan smiled at the unexpected sense of completion. It certainly didn’t seem dangerous. How weak a king must be to fear something like this.
The smooth ripples in the leather played against her skin as she lightly caressed the cover. Soon, she sought out the edge of the book and began to brush the pages, feeling them tick past her fingertips. She did this a few times before stopping at a random page. Digging her fingers in deeper, she opened the book. Her breath escaped her. Never had she seen so many words in one place. Such unexpected bounty. Tim’s stories had made Joan hungry for more, and now this feast lay before her. She lifted the book to her face, closed her eyes and breathed in. It smelled delicious—a banquet of sweet vanilla.
She lowered the book and looked at Tim, knowing she did not deserve such a gift. He understood the incredulous expression on her face.
“I’ve read them so many times,” he said. “I know them by heart. But you can’t just walk around with a book. Wear this.” He pushed a worn cloak toward her. “Hide your contraband underneath.”
Joan placed the book on a table and threw the cloak around herself, fastening the buttons down the front. It hid her fine clothes, and she looked just like a peasant. When she was ready, she picked up the book and followed Tim outside. They walked through the night forest toward the trail. Joan never would have found the way by herself.
“Tim,” she said. “You must be careful. The prince has sent out guards to search for you. They will be coming through here soon.”
“I suspected as much,” he responded. “Whenever they catch someone, they get very active. I’ll have to stay put for a while, but it will blow over eventually.”
As they approached the path, Tim stopped and listened carefully. No unusual noises disturbed the night.
“It seems safe,” he explained. “I can’t go any closer, especially now with the guards on alert, but the trail is just ahead. I’ll have to ask you to continue on your own.”
Joan paused to thank him. She not only appreciated the stories, but she also cherished all the time he had spent answering her questions. A new world had opened up for her, and she regretted having to leave it behind. Back at the castle, no one could talk about anything more sophisticated than a fart.
“Hurry along,” he urged. “You need to get home before dawn. You don’t want to get caught walking around with a book.”
Joan pushed her way through the brush and easily found the path. She then promptly turned in the wrong direction.