arth she’d entered. Her understandings as a Mystic taught her to never underestimate the power and wisdom of dreams, to find the meaning within every symbol. In her own teachings on dream reading, the appearance of a hole in the earth was clearly an allusion to death. One’s own death. She shivered at the notion.
But what of the strange object in her hand? What had it been? Like a word one has forgotten yet hangs on the tip of one’s tongue, the thing was naggingly unrecognizable. The tall clock near the bookshelf gave its sullen chime and the door creaked open; Balthazar had returned with more wood. As he began setting the load on the stack by the fire, Iphigenia’s eyes lit up. “Of course!” she exclaimed, her eyes fixed on the clock and its innards, a lattice of wheels, chains, and chimes.
Balthazar was caught by surprise. “What is it, Elder Mystic?” he asked.
“A cog!” she said. “A machine’s cog. That was what I was holding!”
The acolyte stared at her, confused. Iphigenia waved away his confusion apologetically. “In a dream,” she explained. “It was only a dream.”
“Yes, Elder Mystic.” He seemed relieved to hear the kettle boiling; he pulled it from the hob and poured the hot liquid into a teacup, which he then handed to Iphigenia. The fire was beginning to take, and the room was filling with warmth and light.
“Balthazar,” said Iphigenia, after taking a hesitant sip from her tea, “I’ll be needing to confer with the Council Tree today; please let the other Mystics know. At noon.”
“Yes, Iphigenia,” said Balthazar. He hurried from the room.
The Elder Mystic remained, staring at the lazy flames as they licked at the logs in the hearth. The dream, while having been somewhat elucidated now, was still a mystery to her. It seemed to her that the tree would have insight. She felt, in a way, that the tree had had a part in sending her the dream. It must have something very important to relate, Iphigenia decided, very important indeed.
It surprised Prue very much, but nevertheless there it was: The camp did, in fact, have a library. She had stumbled on it, some five days into her quarantine among the bandits, while wandering the labyrinthine walkways and rope bridges that made up this precarious cliff-face encampment. It occupied a tall, narrow cave and was made up of about five makeshift bookshelves. The librarian, a heavyset, kindly-faced man with dark skin, sat at a wooden table and read. A potbelly stove had been installed next to him, and he occasionally broke from his book to stuff the thing with logs. When he saw Prue enter, he lit up.
“Ain’t you the Outsider?” he asked.
“I guess so,” Prue responded. “Though I prefer Prue.”
“Well, Prue,” said the librarian, “welcome to the Bandit Library. Browse at your leisure.”
“Where did these books come from?” asked Prue.
“Oh, you know,” said the librarian. “Here and there. We don’t typically rob folks for their books, but occasionally a volume will catch a lad’s eye. You get the idea. Though a lot have been furnished legally. When we’ve got enough scratch up, there’s a bookseller comes through, and we can get some new material that way.” He paused, frowning. “Though it’s been a time since we got new stock. Hard times for all. Even librarians.” Remembering himself, he looked back to Prue. “Anything in particular you be looking for?”
“Oh no, just wandering,” said Prue. She ambled over to the short row of bookshelves and began studying the spines. She’d always been most comfortable in libraries ever since she was a small child, and even though this one did not resemble any library she’d been in previously, it still managed to inspire a kind of solace in her. The books sat on their shelves in lazy patterns, some stacked on their backs, others neatly filed in a line. Some looked fairly new, with bright lettering on glossy paperback stock, while others looked as if they’d survived generations and generations of readers, their leather-bound covers worn down in places to reveal wooden boards beneath. Prue began studying the titles and found she didn’t recognize a single one: The Rule of Trees, Mr. Slipshod’s Arcania, Ten Badger-Friendly Activities in South Wood, A Woodian in the Outside. This latter volume, a well-thumbed paperback, caught Prue’s attention, and she pulled it from the shelf. To her best guess, it looked as if it’d been published decades before, judging from the black-and-white photograph on the cover: An older gentleman in a gabardine suit and a porkpie hat stood smiling in front of a clearly Portlandian city street. A few cars could be seen in the background, and they looked to be models one would see in a movie from the 1950s. Intrigued, Prue flipped it open to a random page and read:
quite different from what one comes to expect in the more affluent burgs of our own South Wood. It would seem that many of the residents of these central districts don’t so much rely on their arborous neighbors as use them for decoration. I stopped a young man on a bicycle and put to him: Why does the Outsider, in general, choose to remove so many of the healthy, thriving native vegetation in favor of more of these obscene concrete structures? Well, dear reader, I can scarce begin to describe his confused stare; he merely named the thing a “parking structure,” a title which I came to understand as meaning a windowless building, some many stories tall, explicitly used for the parking of automobiles. I thanked the young man for this information and hurried on my way, my poor stomach growling for its afternoon chocolate mousse, which, you’ll kindly remember, I’d refrained from allowing it since its “troubles” the night before.
Prue set the book back on the shelf and was just about to reach for another volume, this one enticingly titled The Lost Letters: Lewis and Clark in Wildwood, when a noise disrupted her from her browsing.
“Prue!” It was Curtis’s voice.
Prue turned to see her friend, his face flushed and smiling, standing at the opening to the cave. They’d parted ways early that morning when Curtis had left for Bandit Training. She’d not been allowed to go along, not having taken the oath, but it didn’t bother her. She had listened to the other kids in the barracks moan at the morning bugle and had quietly thanked heaven for the opportunity to sleep in a little. They’d arranged to meet back at the barracks for afternoon recess; since her arrival, it was how their days had typically been shaped.
“They let us out early,” explained Curtis, waving to the librarian, “and I heard you were here. Figures, bookworm.”
“This is amazing,” said Prue. “This whole library here—and it’s all books written and published in the Wood. I mean, look at this.” She pulled the last title she’d been eyeing from the shelf. “Lewis and Clark! They were here!”
Curtis grabbed the book from her hand and looked at it momentarily before setting it back on the shelf. “Yeah, whatever,” he said. “C’mon, they’re running the ravine!”
“Running the ravine,” explained an impatient Curtis. “It’s a race. Happens every Thursday. Trainees do it; it’s like an obstacle course. It’s starting!”
Curtis grabbed Prue’s hand, and they darted from the library. Prue gave the librarian a last, quick wave before she was dragged out into the light of the day. Back out in the hazy sunlight, she had to squint until her eyes adjusted. An early morning snow squall had left a thin carpet of white on the many wooden structures of the bandit camp and the shallow nicks and gullies in the jagged rock of the cliff face. The wind blew brittle, and Prue turned up the collar of her peacoat as she followed Curtis up a zigzagging flight of stairs.
Atop a circular tower built into the rock at the western end of the encampment, about a dozen young bandits-in-training had amassed; Brendan stood in the middle of the group. By the time Prue and Curtis had hiked the staircase that wrapped the tower, the Bandit King had nearly finished with his instruction.
“You’re late, bandit,” said Brendan curtly.
Curtis, out of breath, spoke haltingly. “I had to get Prue; I wanted her to see this.”
“What, see you get your butt handed to you?” This came from a girl a few years older than Prue and Curtis, who was leaning against the crude wooden rampart of the tower. She wore her blond hair back in a leather clip and had on a grenadier’s coat, crisscrossed in the center by twin sashes.