There were no stories in Bain about times before the Wall; as far as the residents of that town, and all those who lived near the Perimeter, were concerned, it had always been there. When Ancelstierre was nothing but a ragtag collection of barbarous duchies and princedoms, the Old Kingdom stood strong on the other side, protected by its Charter made visible, the Wall.
In the old days, before the royal line in the Old Kingdom failed and before Ancelstierre had slain its King and Queen in the streets of Corvere, people from the Old Kingdom and Ancelstierre had traveled between the two realms—not often, yet not unusually. But as the Old Kingdom had slipped into stagnation, and then into outright instability, while Ancelstierre’s industrializing fortunes rose, even the people of Bain forgot most of what their ancestors had known about the land beyond the Wall, except for one thing: it was an ill wind that blew out of the north. Gradually, along the Perimeter, people began to say “when the King comes back” as a locution for “never,” and no one troubled whether they truly meant the King in Corvere or across the Wall.
The Abhorsen Terciel was the first person to cross into Ancelstierre from the Old Kingdom in more than a century, and he and his daughter Sabriel were the first people in nearly two hundred years to cross back. But they were not the last.
* * * * *
In the years after the Restoration of King Touchstone, as it came to be called, Bain grew to be a little less sleepy, a little more lively, though it never quite lost the stiff wariness which is a characteristic of all border towns, particularly towns on borders over which inimical creatures may come with little or no warning other than the turning of a weathervane. But there was a King in Belisaere again, with whom the potentates of Ancelstierre must needs do business, and the papermakers of Bain, among other heritage industries, enjoyed a minor renaissance based solely on the need for official correspondence that could reach its recipient intact.
It was about this time that the people of Bain began telling stories of the Old Kingdom again, and in a few short years it became clear that there were nearly as many stories as there were people in Bain; on nights when the wind blew to the south the taproom in the old Key and Stars was crowded with would-be fabulists vying for acclaim. Frequently, the Librarian of Wyverly College could be seen hunched over a table towards the back of the room, her mug of cider mostly ignored while she scribbled notes. On days after particularly bad nights, she was often called on to tell her own story, for the Librarian had been one of the schoolgirls who had stood with the Abhorsen Sabriel and her consort the future King against Kerrigor.
The experience changed her, as it changed all who survived that desperate fight. Before she had accompanied the Magistrix and the Colonel and her schoolmates, the Librarian had been a young girl from a good Ancelstierran family, a cadet branch of the powerful Sayres in fact, expected to make a good marriage upon her matriculation and debut. Charter magic had been regarded by the Librarian’s parents as a harmless schoolgirl obsession, the throes of which would fade as soon as she had been introduced to the wider world. After Kerrigor, however, the Librarian felt that a veil had been lifted from her sight: even she herself, in her heart of hearts, had known Charter magic for a delusion rather than reality. And in Ancelstierre, it was so. But in the Old Kingdom, that delusion was reality, and for that reason the Old Kingdom would remain forever beyond Ancelstierre’s grasp.
After her matriculation from Wyverly, the Librarian elected to continue on to one of the two ancient Universites just north of Corvere, to the dismay of her parents and most of their social circle. But if the Librarian’s parents had one fault, it was their unwillingness to insist their daughter marry when she was so obviously inclined to further study; her older brother had already made an advantageous match that would carry on the family line, and surely, shut up in books, she would soon begin to long for the company of people her own age.
At Sunbere the Librarian studied assiduously, though like all her fellow female students she was forbidden from taking a degree, and in any case no University in the world offered the degree she wanted. Instead the Librarian studied folklore, and in particular Ancelstierran folklore relating to the Old Kingdom.
Many of that folklore was downright hair-raising: women from Ancelstierre bringing back swains from the Old Kingdom who were in fact Dead; Free Magic maids who crossed the Wall for love of an Ancelstierran boy, and crumbled to dust with each step they took. Stay in your place, the stories whispered. Death will have you, and you do not.
But in the depths of Sunbere’s rare manuscripts collection, the Librarian found a very old tale, written on handmade paper, that told of a time before the Wall, of two lovers who had been divided when the Wallmakers had created their masterwork. And though in those days there were no Crossing Points, no Perimeter and no Reconnaissance Units, and the two women were easily reunited, the story had insisted that they had never again been quite so happy, for they had mourned the loss of magic in Ancelstierre as though it had been their own child. The last line had been partly illegible: But if magic returns to the south, the story concluded, and there was nothing more.
“If magic returns to the south,” the Librarian whispered to herself, and looked around her at the high stone walls and wooden shelves. She knew the answer. If magic returned to the south, it would be the end of Ancelstierre, and very likely of the Old Kingdom too; the two realms defined themselves by magic, and its lack.
It was in the great libraries’ high stacks that she first discovered the tales that claimed that the Sayres had originally come from across the Wall. The few scholars who had worked in the discipline since the beginning of the Interregnum mostly dismissed the connection as nothing more than a folk etymology arising from a suggestive coincidence, but the Librarian was intrigued nonetheless. She did not imagine that in any possible way she could “belong” in the Old Kingdom—and indeed, five hundred miles south of the Wall, she felt the Charter not at all, even in the strongest northern winds—but she liked the reminder that it was possible to change one’s point of view concerning what was real, and what was only delusion.
Five years after going up from Wyverly, she heard from one of her former schoolmates that the College was looking for a librarian, preferably someone with some Charter magic (for Wyverly had drawn some very astute conclusions regarding its continuing association with the Abhorsen family, and school policy at the highest levels had changed accordingly), and the Librarian immediately sent inquiries to her alma mater regarding the position. After a few civilized exchanges between the Librarian and the Head Magistrix, she was offered that position by which our story defines her, which she accepted, leaving Sunbere directly. And so at the College she remained, becoming a familiar sight in Wyverly town and in Bain to the north, a trim figure in sensible dark clothes on a sturdy bicycle with a satchel of books and papers strapped across her back.
* * * * *
It was not until years later, after the unusual events at Forwin Mill (as the Times laconically described it), that the Librarian began to think of crossing the Wall.
Even twenty years after Kerrigor, the idea was not without a thrill of fear; only the Abhorsen and her family, who walked in Death as part of their birthright, really seemed able to negotiate the crossing with ease. The Librarian had watched Miss Ellimere, as she was known around Wyverly College, and secretly envied the young girl her ability to take nearly anything in stride. She would, the Librarian thought, make a very great Queen one day.
Unauthorized persons were shot on sight at the Perimeter, and one was not considered authorized to approach the Crossing Point unless one possessed the proper paperwork from both governments. She was not really surprised, despite her family connexion to the Chief Minister (her father’s second cousin once removed), when her letter of request for a Crossing Permit was returned with a politely bureaucratic denial, despite her detailed proposal outlining possible research on cross-Wall folk tales.
The letter was delivered the same day that the Times carried a brief piece on the destruction of Dorrance Hall, which had burned down with its owner inside it: a house party entertainment gone tragically awry. Because the Librarian kept her ear to the ground in Bain, figuratively speaking, she knew enough to suspect that the “accident” was related somehow to the Abhorsen-in-Waiting briefly crossing the Wall, and taking the Chief Minister’s nephew, the Librarian’s distant relation Nicholas Sayre, back to the Old Kingdom with her. The Times had not mentioned Nicholas Sayre at all, and the Librarian thought he would soon fade into less than a story, remembered in Bain for his achievements on the Somersby cricket side, if at all: he would be dead to Ancelstierre. Would Ancelstierre, she wondered, be dead to him? Or was it already?
Only after she had mused on Nicholas Sayre’s effective death for upwards of a week did the Librarian think to consult the Head Magistrix, who of course was on familiar terms with the Abhorsen, and the King.
Magistrix Coelle was a hardy soul, in her own way, and besides possessing enough perspicacity for any two instructors she was also Bain born and bred; as a child she had heard the old stories of people wanting to cross the Wall, and she knew enough to recognize the look in the Librarian’s eyes. “I will write to the Abhorsen,” she said at last, after listening to the Librarian’s rather impassioned speech; “I can make no promises, of course.”
“Of course, Magistrix,” said the Librarian; “thank you,” and returned to her papery domain directly. Once there, she poured herself another cup of tea, and tried not to stare at the electric lighting gleaming on her sword. It was a serviceable blade, and nothing more, but she had studied its use since Kerrigor, and she was about as good with it as anyone not on the Northern Perimeter Reconnaissance Unit.
Five months later a Permission from King Touchstone arrived for the Librarian, folded into a carefully couched letter to Magistrix Wyverly from the Abhorsen and Princess Ellimere, by way of the consulate in Bain. With Ellimere’s personal approval in hand, as well as the Permission, the Librarian was able to put her family connexions to effect, and within the month she held in her hands a Crossing Permit, written out in ink and sealed with wax on good handmade Bain paper.
“Are you sure you wish to do this?” Magistrix Coelle asked softly, when the Librarian went to her parlor to inform her of her plans for the Long Recess, and of the very great probability, due to the unstable time difference between the Old Kingdom and Ancelstierre, that she would be late returning.
“I think I must,” the Librarian said at last. “I do not want—not to stay. But I have to go, so that I may come back. Does that make sense?”
“You know the stories,” said the magistrix. “One might as well walk into Death.”
The Librarian touched the Charter mark on her forehead. She no longer noticed it much, though at Sunbere, and when she went back up to Corvere for the occasional family visit, people mostly seemed to regard it as something they were too polite to mention, but of which she ought to be ashamed.
“Perhaps I shall,” she said. “In any case, Magistrix, I will take utmost caution. And—thank you.” The Librarian rose, and Magistrix Coelle went with her to the door, as was only courteous.
She set off by bicycle for Bain that very afternoon, and when she reached the town she stowed it out back of the Key and the Stars, by prior agreement with the management. The Old Kingdom consulate in Bain had arranged her transport to the Crossing Point, and the Librarian watched the Wall grow steadily larger against the horizon from the back of the flatbed truck. It appeared to be raining on the other side, though the weather that surrounded her was that of a clear day in late spring.
The men at the Crossing Point regarded her dubiously—her papers proclaimed her Ancelstierran, but she was dressed like a northerner in armor, with a sword and a pack, and what Ancelstierran woman dressed like that?—but those same papers were all in order, and at length the General in command ordered an escort detachment assembled.
“Well, Miss Sayre,” he said heartily, as he rose to escort her to the door of his dugout command post, “I hope you’ll meet a better end than your cousin, or those poor Southerlings Corolini’s people duped into crossing last year…They were all murdered, you know.”
“My cousin?” the Librarian repeated. “You mean Nicholas?”
“Indeed I do, Miss; he went across in company with the Abhorsen-in-Waiting not seven months back. And, begging your pardon, but I’ve seen enough people come and go through the Crossing Point to recognize the ones who won’t return. One way or another,” he added darkly.
“Yes, that’s Nick all right,” said the Librarian, assuming a wholly unreal familiarity for the sake of politeness. On impulse, she asked, “I don’t look like that, do I, General?”
He was clearly startled, but the General was a gentleman, and he recovered admirably. “Well—no, Miss Sayre, to be perfectly frank. But you do look like someone who wants to go, and that’s rare enough in itself.”
“I have to see it for myself,” the Librarian said, with perfect, if rather obscure, candor. She held out her hand, and the General shook it bemusedly. “Thank you, General.”
“A pleasure, I’m sure, Miss Sayre,” he said. “Take care, now.”
It is a curious sensation, that of not-belonging in a place for which one has yearned. Though the countryside did not seem at all different, the Librarian felt it the instant she had crossed the Wall into the Old Kingdom: she had intruded into a land in which she did not belong, in which everything was perfectly strange…and yet somehow familiar despite that. Did she know this land from dreams? Or from all those hours spent reading stories about it? Or was the familiarity as illusory as the warm rain was real? She would never know if she did not leave the shadow of the Wall.
Her escort waited politely while she dug in her pack for an oilskin and fastened it over her pack and her torso, but looked only too happy when she bid them a polite farewell. Loosening her sword in its scabbard, the Librarian began walking north, towards Barhedrin and the stories whose endings, and beginnings, she had come to find.
The ground rose very gradually, and after a mile or two she turned to look back. It was twilight in Ancelstierre now, though here on the other side of the Wall it was still early afternoon, and the harsh electric lights of the Perimeter posts were clearly visible at regular intervals, stabbing into the gloaming. Beyond them, she could just make out a faint glowing smudge that had to be Bain, and her mind leapt directly thence to Wyverly town, and then to the College.
“I shall never go back,” said the Librarian to herself; “not as I am now, at any rate.” Smiling a little, she turned her face away from the south and started walking again.