It was one of those mornings. Another relentlessly summer one. The sun was bright and warm, there were only a few clouds in a deep blue sky, over a lush green world, and birds were singing.
Helb tugged the curtains closed with a grunt. He turned back into this room, banging his shin on his desk as he did so.
He liked the sound of that, so he cursed again.
It was a world, Helb believed, that needed to be frequently cursed at, especially when it was being so… so unnecessarily and so relentlessly cheerful.
Helb didn’t hold with cheerful. He had never really understood happy either. Other people seemed to like them. But other people seemed to like mornings too, especially sunny summer mornings.
Helb glanced back at his thick heavy curtains. No matter how hard he tried, a bit of light always leaked through into his room. He was prepared to put up with that, though. It gave the room a nice gloomy sort of comfort. He turned sharply and cursed again.
He glared down at the corner post of his bed.
Although, the gloom did mean he kept bumping into things.
When he was young, his parents, especially his mother, had always nagged him to go outside. ‘It is a nice bright sunny day,’ she’d say. ‘All the other children are playing outside.’
To Helb those were two excellent reasons to stay inside. If there was anything worse than a bright sun-shining summer day, it was other people. When Helb was young, it was other children. They wanted to play games Knights and Ladies, Dragons and Heroes, Outlaws and Barons and many other ways of wasting time with balls and hoops, along with kissing the girls and many other ways of making Helb shiver and long for gloom and darkness.
Helb liked candle flames, though. He liked the way they flickered as his breath created draughts around them as he read.
The other children thought he was odd, strange, weird. None of them could read, and none of them wanted to read. The only use they saw for books was what they used the old out-of-date almanacs for in the privy.
The wise woman, Velka, could read and the Sharman, Berl, too. They alone decoded the strange symbols on the page that told of when the moon would change, when the rains would come and when to plant, reap or hunt. They used the few books they had to tell the village of the strange towns and cities that lay beyond the hills, of the monsters and dragons that roamed the world. They spoke of the outlaws who waited hidden in the undergrowth at the roadside waiting for those foolish enough to travel, those who wander from the safety of their village. They told especially, looking each young girl in the eye, of what happened to maidens who stepped off the path. How they never would see their homes and families ever again… and how – if they were lucky – that ever again would be mercifully brief for them.
Helb, though, loved the stories. He loved the books, the solid heft of them. He learnt to read and then taught himself how to read to learn. He promised himself that when this summer was over, he would dare go beyond the village and find out what was really out there beyond the distant hills.