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Between the crosses, row on row

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The only sound in the echoing hallway is Nightingale’s breathing and the soft, steady rasp of metal on wood.

 

Dear Thomas,

 

He had not let himself count, as the names piled up under his fingers, but he knows the end approaches. Robert Zellany, he carves, the neat slash of the Z, the straight lines of the Ls, as he has done again and again and again. The names march on beyond the tidy circle of his werelight, until he cannot see anything else when he raises his head.

 

I will not ask for forgiveness for what I am about to do, as I cannot ask forgiveness for what I have done. If I had known—but did I know, and turn a blind eye? Surely I must have known. We talked so much, my German friends and I, before Hitler came to power. Surely I must have known *something*. Was there something I could have said, to stop them? Was there something I could have done, before they turned down that path?

 

He had planned carefully, first in hospital, as he hoarded his limited strength and learned how to carve the straight line of the staff, the little nick of the serif, and later through the slow years of post-war reconstruction, as the number of surviving wizards grew fewer and fewer, until one day Nightingale woke up to an empty Folly and the realization of I am the last wizard in England. He knew just how big to make each letter, exactly how much wood he needed to fit all two thousand, three hundred and ninety-six names. He had practiced, as the silence grew around him, until each letter was as perfect and identical as the last.

 

But I shouldn’t be talking about that. My brain circles back to it again and again, but that is not why I am writing you. They tell me you are expected to recover. I am sorry I have not visited you in hospital; it is a small thing, to lay against my other crimes, but I find it weighs on me the most. I would have liked to see you one more time. But when they told me you were alive, and had been returned to England, first you were too ill to be seen, and by the time you weren’t—well. I could not face you. I could not face you telling me it was not my fault. I have always been weak; you know that. You have always been the stronger man; the better man.

 

So now as he carves each name, his hands move on automatic as his mind fills with the memories of the men he knew. Here was Jonny Crouch, who had accidentally lit the headmaster’s terrier on fire with a misplaced lux and spent the next five years the enemy of every teacher and the hero of every student. Here was Alfred “One-Shot” Hodges, who could shoot a grouse in the eye at fifty yards but couldn’t impello anything heavier than a billiard ball. Here was Ben Quincy, whom Nightingale had last seen decapitated, his face still a mask of horror.

Sometimes all he had was a brief interaction during the war, of a chance encounter during mission planning or of a forma particularly well cast. Sometimes he hadn’t even that, and he let his mind fill with memories of Ettersberg. Was this name, here, of someone who had died when the camp was cut off, or had he burned with one of the doomed gliders? Nightingale didn’t know, and so the wall reflected back gas explosions and wood smoke, rotting flesh and the first bowel-loosening rush of terror.

 

They have locked the library behind a reinforced door in the depths of the Folly. I wanted to burn it. They didn’t listen to me. They have never listened to me; the only people who ever listened to me were the wrong people. When you get out, Thomas, I want you to burn it. Don’t read it. Whatever you do, promise me you won’t read it. Just burn it, and walk away. Walk away from the Folly, from magic, walk away from the darkness. Walk away from your memories of me. Find some way to build a happy life, as someone other than what the Folly made us. It will be better that way.

 

If you ran your hand along the wall as you walked up the stairs, the vestigia would blur together: the shout of joy as Lousy Lacy sunk the winning goal in fourth form with the smell of petrol and charred meat as George McCoy burned to death. And through it all, under every name, the echoing, desolate emptiness of a house that had once been full.

Nightingale thinks that, perhaps, it is best that Casterbrook is not to be reopened, that no one but himself will ever climb these stairs again, and run their fingers along the wall of names.

 

I am sorry. In the end, that is all I can say: I am sorry. You gave up your place for me, and this is how I have repaid you.

 

He touches the last empty space of the plaque. It is bare, and smooth, and completely lacks vestigia. There is just enough room for the suicides, all the deaths that didn’t come due until they came home, and understood what they had done. He had made sure there was enough room. He picks up the chisel, and prepares to carve the first of the later dead.

The bare wood stares at him, somehow more of an accusation than the endless rows of names.

He puts the chisel down.

 

It seems I am weak in this as well; I will ask. Please forgive me.

 

If failure is carved into every line and curve on the wall, he cannot give to Ambrose House this last, personal failure: he cannot give to the wood and the silence his memories of David, or the final unconquerable grief.

 

Always your friend,
David

 

Nightingale packs up his tools, and dismisses his werelight with a practiced flick of his hand. He walks down the stairs in darkness, and when he opens the night door, the sunlight would blind him, if he could see through the tears.