The Last Storyteller

With the guards around, there was still no way for Joan to get into the garden without raising suspicion. She continued spuriously hoeing and glanced sideways at Rose. She saw the gate open wide and Rose walk out with purpose. She grabbed Joan by the hand and pulled her away.

“Come,” she said.

“Just a minute there,” said a guard. He approached the girls suspiciously. “You are from the kitchens, yea?” he asked Rose.

“Yes,” she said without looking up.

“You come out here for extra help?”


“Don’t suppose I should get between the prince and his stomach. Go on then.”

Joan wanted to hurry, but couldn’t. She needed to pretend to be a worker for a little longer. Rose led her patiently through the gate and latched it closed behind them.

“Thank you,” whispered Joan.

“Shh. Not here, please.”

They passed through the garden and into the kitchen where Joan collapsed onto the stone floor. Her arm had gone completely numb, but her neck and back throbbed in agony. With eyes clamped shut, she heard Rose arrange for a hot bath upstairs. Next she felt the girl’s strong hands assist her to her feet and guide her up to her room.

“Put this under my mattress.” Joan held out the book to the servant when they had reached her quarters.

“One of Tim’s books! Oh, milady. You took a terrible risk.”

Rose hid the book and returned to her side. When she helped the scribe into the tub, she noticed the injury. A deep bruise covered her left shoulder. Joan winced in pain as she settled into the warm water.

The girl berated herself for having left Joan by herself in the forest, and she begged forgiveness. She had just assumed a member of the royal family didn’t need the help of a mere servant. Joan assured her she wasn’t to blame at all; in fact, it was her own carelessness that had gotten her into this mess.

Joan was much more worried she may have been called downstairs for something, or had been found missing somehow. “Is the prince up yet?” she asked.

“No, milady. It’s not near noon.”

The scribe heaved a sigh of relief and sank lower into the steaming water so the pain and worry could dissolve away.

It took days for her to recover. She spent as much time in bed as possible, reading by the light of the window. Though her body was confined, her mind was free—free to roam through the realm of words, free to go beyond the barriers of this miserable world. Joan had never felt such liberation. She understood now what Tim meant when he said he could not go back to a life of mental servitude. Joan would never be happy again without stories.

When she could not avoid her regular duties, she muddled through them without anyone suspecting her debility. Rose visited often, and they spoke freely together. Joan was so thankful to have someone intelligent to talk to, and she looked forward to her visits.

One morning Joan lay in bed reading by the fresh light when a frantic knocking at the door startled her. She jumped to her feet, buried the book under her mattress and called for the intruder to enter. Rose stepped in, her face flushed and twisted with anxiety. Joan was instantly alarmed.

“They captured the storyteller!” Rose cried.

As Joan rushed to get ready, her mind raced with desperate thoughts. She would have to save him, but she didn’t know how. Should she sneak a weapon and overpower a guard? Should she tell them the king demanded his release? But as soon as an idea popped into her head, she dismissed it as hopeless. She had no power to do anything.

Sickened with apprehension, she descended into the dungeons. Joan had never ventured down into the moldy castle depths before, so the guards were surprised to see her there.

“The king will want a report,” Joan told them. She made that up, but figured it was probably true. “You won’t want to disappoint him.”

The dank cell had a single small opening where light trickled through. There was no furniture, so Tim sat on the stone floor against the wall. He looked very different. His clothes were soiled and his face was bruised.

“I must get you out of here,” Joan said.

“You’d just get caught with me,” Tim replied. “There are too few of us to let that happen. It must be just me.”

Tim had been out hunting when they discovered him. He had tried pretending to be one of the forest wanderers, but they weren’t fooled. “Only a storied person would know how to hunt,” he explained.

“They will kill you.” She was shocked by the finality in her own voice.

“Yes. I guess they are waking the prince now.”

Joan stared at the floor. The injustice infuriated her. Tim was a good person. Rose was a good person. All of the listeners were good people. How could they be treated like such criminals?

“It should not end this way,” she declared. “It isn’t right.”

“For me it is.”

Joan shook her head, her thoughts in disarray. “Why do you say that?”

Tim released a long breath and rested his head back against the filthy wall. “My mother was a storyteller.”

He had told her before about his mother’s death, and how she left the books behind for Tim to find, but the storyteller was getting at something new.

“I remember you saying.” She looked at him and waited.

“I’m the one who turned her in,” he said.

Joan’s breath froze, confusion seeping into her eyes and transforming her expression. His words were unbelievable.

He could see she needed an explanation. “You don’t know what it’s like to be brought up as a worker,” he said. Like all the other peasants, Tim was raised to know nothing. No one was allowed to speak or to think. Peasants and other workers knew what was wrong because the king told them, and they obeyed because they feared punishment.

The storyteller further explained how there was no special connection between mothers, fathers, and their children. Without language, there was no connection between anyone. His parents were simply some of the many people he lived with, nothing more.

“In fact, my mother frightened me,” Tim said. “She taught me things I knew were wrong; she taught me to read. I walked in fear with this knowledge, aware I could die for having it. My mother was a law breaker, and she forced me to be one also.”

When they came looking for the storyteller, they lined up the villagers and asked them individually if they knew who she was. Then they clubbed each one for remaining silent. Some of them never moved again. When they got to Tim, he said the only word he was allowed. Yes.

“I led them to my mother. When they grabbed her, my mother leaned over me and whispered, ‘Remember.’”

Tim stopped speaking, waiting for Joan to say something. He wanted her to tell him it was okay, or that it was understandable. He wanted her to forgive him, and he also wanted her to curse him. He needed both, but she did neither. Instead, she stared silently at nothing.

“For a long time, I wondered about her last word,” he continued. “Remember that moment? I have never forgotten it, but that wasn’t what she meant.”

Tim eventually realized his mother didn’t feel herself important enough to memorialize, but the stories were—the ones he had learned to read. He began to miss them, so he went to the grotto where the books were hidden and began to read them all. The stories taught him about another life that wasn’t spent in blind obedience or in constant fear. They taught him about the human spirit. They taught him about the love between parents and their children. He grasped for the first time how much his mother had cared, and Tim mourned the role he played in her death.

“I wished I had understood,” he lamented. “I wished I had died instead. I still wish that.”

Tim paused, but Joan didn’t know what to say. A silence as heavy as all of human misery sank upon them. When Tim spoke again, it seemed to crack the darkness.

“Soon, people began to show up, and I took my mother’s place as storyteller. I tried to make her proud. I can only hope I did. And now it is my time to follow the path of all storytellers. It is right I should. I deserve no less.”

Tim looked up at Joan and was about to speak again when a guard slammed open the door. “The prince is ready to see you now, you scummy pile of trash.”