At the Collapse: The Origin of an Oracle

For the past decade, I have told stories with my friends. But it is more than just telling someone a story; it is living the story with them.

We run and play live-action roleplay games. We dress up as characters from a made-up world, and put them into places they have never been, with events happening around them that they must endure and emerge victorious from. It is the most addictive, intoxicating, wonderful thing I have ever done.

It has taught me to be brave, to be daring, and it has helped me realise the depth of my friendships; how they persist even in absence, how they grow deeper over time, how telling a story with someone like this is to give of yourself to that person and receive in return.

I have played many characters in these games. They have given me gifts that I cannot express the true worth of. They have given me love and laughter and things I had thought I had lost – like singing and dancing and forgetting everything that is in my head and being.

And they gave me the seeds from which Corentine, and Protos, were born.

I’ve talked about this before. This isn’t news. But what I would like to share with you today is that seed. A portion of the character from who Corentine has grown and developed. She and Cateline are not the same – not anymore – but I want to give you this woman who is so precious to me that even thinking about her makes my heart ache.

I never planned to do this. To be honest, I had decided not to. But so much of who I am as a writer comes from the wealth of stories I have written about my characters and my friends’ characters and I would not be representing myself truly if I didn’t share them with you.

So here you are. Here is Cateline. I hope you love her even a fraction as much as I do. As with all stories of this nature, aspects of her story are not wholly mine; they are the ideas and property of the game from which she was born. It contains non-graphic references to sexual situations.

After a while, in the summer, you just stopped noticing how hot the kitchens were.

Sweat was sticking her shirt to her back, her tunic was thick with the smell of fermented yeast, and the muscles in her forearms were sending shooting pains up to her shoulders whenever she kneaded.

She kept going, of course, because that was what you did – especially when the King was returning. Last time, he’d shaken her hand. Cook had introduced her to him; he’d wanted to meet the people who had fed and watered him and his weary, victorious army. She remembered how warm his hand was – it had been winter then – and how his grip was gentle and firm all at once. His smile had done things to her insides that she hadn’t felt for months.

Now Arthur was back, the kitchens were like the warzone he’d just left, and Cateline had cursed his name precisely twenty-seven times since getting up five hours before dawn. No one minded; they were cursing too. It was what you did. No one minded the cursing, and no one minded that everyone was sweating like a pig into the sweetroll dough, and no one talked about the fact that they were hours behind schedule.

The chapel bells rang for noon, and someone put their arms around Cateline’s waist. Hard, metallic arms – the edges of them jabbed into her ribcage. She looked down at them and stared.

“Hello Cat.”

Her eyes darted back up, to the boy in front of her who was smirking. “It’s your turn for a break, anyway. Give me that.”

She lifted the dough and threw it forward onto his side of the table, turning in the same movement to look up at her – armoured, tanned, almost unrecognisable – assailant.

“Sera?” she gasped, forgetting to breathe as she stared. The woman before her was just that – not the girl that had left, seven months before, after taking her knightly vows. Her hair was as straight and short and dark as it had ever been, but her face was entirely different – sharper, more lined, and with a scar that traced the line of her left cheekbone.

“You were expecting someone else? But I only just left, kitty cat. Surely you haven’t replaced me already.”

“No, I -”

Sera took Cateline by the hands and pulled her out of the kitchens, the sound of activity cut cleanly through by the clank of chainmail against plate. They ran until they were out in the quad, surrounded by cool stone and shielded from both the bustling workers and the burning sun – but it wasn’t cooler in the shade. Not when Sera pressed her against the wall, all sharp angles and new strength, and caught her lips with her own.

“I missed you,” Cateline sighed, reaching up to brush at tumbling locks of black hair. “So much.”

“No you didn’t, kitty cat. Cook never gave you the chance to, I bet.”

“You’re not allowed to gamble anymore, you’re a Knight of Camelot. Knights are supposed to comport themselves as the King would.”

“Arthur gambles,” Sera grinned, splaying her hand over Cateline’s abdomen. “And drinks. I saw him with a pipe once too, who knows what was in it. I don’t think he did by the end of it.”

Cateline’s lips parted. “You…you actually see him like that?”

“Seen him with his shirt off too.”

“Now you’re just being mean.”

“C’mon, kitty cat, you’re hardly the first person in Celliwig to get a crush on his royal majesty. And I, of all people, am the most worthy of -”

Cateline noticed it first. With her back against the wall she had a view of the tower where the alarm bell was – she saw someone dashing to it seconds before it rang. But it was Sera who moved first, drawing back in one step and pulling her sword from her back with the other – her left hand still holding onto Cateline’s right.

“This isn’t a drill. Go back into the kitchens, find Cook and the others, get yourselves down into the cellar. Understand?”

The alarm bell was still ringing, but for some reason Cateline’s legs seemed unable to do anything.

“Kitty. Cat. Go, now.” When she still didn’t move, Sera reached out and grabbed at one of the braids in her hair, pulling on it roughly. “Go!”

Cateline ran.

She had never been very good at running. As a child she’d preferred sneaking around the castle in search of hidden places to being out in the fields. Somehow that didn’t seem to matter now; she could hear her feet pounding against the floor in time to the warning bell. It wasn’t far back to the kitchens, but there were already people pouring out of rooms – running as well, in any direction they could find.

The crowd gathered around her and Cateline found that she couldn’t run where she wanted anymore – there were bodies, sweaty and loud and afraid, pressing against her and impeding her every step. It felt like she was being carried helplessly onwards – out, out of the castle and into the surrounding land. There they scattered, leaving her to her own devices. Cateline turned, but the exits to the castle were still full of people. There was no way she was getting back inside.

So she did what everyone else was doing – she panicked. She kept running. Away, wherever she could, over grass and past hedges, through the orchards and out into the fields. She ran until she could barely hear the alarm bell anymore.

That was when she started to see it.

Mist, cold and grey, creeping through the barley that came up to her chest. It should have been damp – or clammy – or something, anything at all, but it was nothing. Touching it felt like something had wrapped a fist around her gut and twisted, hard, yanking out something that was irrevocably her.

Cateline gasped, and around her people started screaming – the few who had run as far as she had. The mist was wrapping around them and their eyes were going white, rolling up into their heads. She recognised most of them; people she had known since she was a child. People she had gone up with.

“Alfred!” she shrieked, running over towards the gardener. He had fallen to one knee, and was staring into the mist with wide eyes. From a distance it looked like horror – close up, as Cateline fell to the ground next to him and wrapped her hands around his elbows, it looked like rapture. As if he had looked into the face of the Gods Themselves. “Alfred, we need to get back to the castle.”

“No, child. No. Look – there’s nothing there. Nothing at all. It is nothingness. We are nothing.”

His voice was hollow, empty, and made Cateline’s skin crawl. He twitched, stumbling to his feet and shaking her gentle touch away. “Alfred,” she begged, grabbing at his sleeve, “please, we have to get away from this -”

“You can’t feel it. You – you really can’t feel it, can you? The mist…oblivion…it can’t touch you.”

It wasn’t instinct that made Cateline stumble back as he lunged for her; it was shock. He was right. She was the only person that wasn’t screaming. His grasping hands missed her by inches, and she shook her head from side to side, frantically looking at the people around them. They were turning on each other – or heading, she noticed, towards her. Like they were hunting her.

So Cateline ran in the one direction she could.

Into the mist.

It wasn’t long before her lungs were burning so much that she had to stop, feeling as if she was about to vomit. The mist was everywhere – it was all she could see. Alfred had been wrong. It wasn’t nothing – it was everything. Everything where there had once been fields. Paths. Homes. She had been born in this direction, in her parents’ farm, as the midnight bell tolled. Her mother had screamed so loudly that the livestock had joined in the wailing chorus.

Now there was just mist.

There wasn’t even time. Or distance. Or direction. Cateline realised, as the burning in her limbs began to turn into an all-encompassing ache, that she had absolutely no idea where she was…or where home was. Where Celliwig was. Where Alfred was. Or Cook. Or Sera. Or anyone. She was lost, and she had no way of working out how to get back.

But there was somewhere out there. Yes – something, somewhere. She just…knew it was. Knew it was there. Tears she hadn’t had a chance to notice dried on her cheeks as she began to walk in that direction, away from the shadows in the mist that had been following her since she ran into its embrace, into everything and nothing all at once.

How long it took, she had no idea. But slowly, slowly, she began to see something. A building – huge, unlike anything she’d ever seen. It looked as if it had been torn from something much larger; one side had no walls at all, just open rooms against which the mist buffeted. It was five stories high – how had anyone managed to build something that high, and so wide? Even Celliwig wasn’t so grand.

What could be grander than the King’s own home?

Cateline pushed the mist out of her face and stepped up, onto dusty oaken floorboards – onto real, proper, solid land – into a room that was filled with row upon row of bookshelves. She had never seen so many. There had been books in Celliwig, of course, not that she’d ever held one herself – but she’d heard the maids complain about keeping them clean. Here there were dozens. Hundreds.

She found a door – it led into another room that looked exactly the same. And another. And another. They curved around, as she had seen the building do from the mist, but all of them were almost identical. Some had chairs, or desks, or stairs, or were aligned in different shapes – but every single one of them was full of books. There weren’t hundreds of them. There were thousands.

Eventually, she stumbled into a hallway – long and curving, like an inner wall to the huge, sweeping place.

“Hello?” she called out, wincing as her voice bounced off the deep red walls. Everything was so…colourful. The rooms of books had all been painted in jewel tones, decorated with ornately carved lights that dangled from the impossibly high ceilings.

It wasn’t anything like Celliwig at all.

Cateline fell down to her knees and buried her face in her hands, fire returning to her lungs as sobs stole her breath away just like her flight had. She had just wanted to be safe. To be safe, like Sera had told her to. To be safe and sound. She should be in the cellar with Cook and the others. She should be home. But she wasn’t.

In the days that followed, she learnt to navigate the strange place, one floor at a time. She learnt the way it curved around in a quarter-circle; the way that no one floor quite lined up with the one above; the fact that no matter how she tried, she couldn’t get into any of the rooms on the fifth floor at all. She found a room with bottles of water, stale but thirst-quenching, and some strange bread that was nothing like anything she had ever made.

Sometimes, often as she was falling asleep from exhaustion, she thought she heard footsteps. But when she scrambled to her feet and ran around, looking in the desperate hope that she was not as alone as she felt, she found nothing. Just her own shadow.

On the sixth day, Cateline tried to go back into the mist. It clawed and cloyed at her and reminded her of Alfred’s face, which once had been soft and warm, lighting up with rapture and lunging for her throat. Two days later she stood on the edge of the mist, up on the third floor where the room ended at the broken edge of a floorboard, and wondered what would happen if she jumped.

No, kitty cat. No.

A fortnight in, she started screaming at the books, as if it was all their fault. They were all she had for company, and she didn’t even know how to read them. How to make sense of them. She began pulling them out of the shelves, even tearing some of them apart, as if they would ever give any sort of reaction.

That was when she heard the voice. Soft, low, and accented in a way she didn’t recognise.

“T’would please me if you did not harm my Master’s belongings.”

Cateline screamed.

Robin knew the moment she entered Oberon’s Library – or what remained of it, at least, broken and sundered as it was. He locked down the fifth floor two seconds later. It was instinct; an instinct he did not yet understand.

Something had happened to him. Power unlike any ever bestowed to him at Court had fallen into his hands, and something – everything – had broken. Was this it? Was this how the Story would come to him, in the chaos of a broken world? He had hoped for it – dreamed for it – but had never thought that this would be the cost of it. Everything he knew, gone in a moment. There wasn’t even anyone else in the library anymore.

Except this girl.

He could feel her fear from four floors away. Her panic. How painfully ill-equipped she was for the reality of the world crumbling around her. He could sense her just like he could sense every single piece of the library; as if it were his, not Oberon’s.

“What do you think?” he asked, pale eyes darting to his left.

Cobweb shrugged her shoulders. “She’s pretty enough. You could do worse.”

“That is – no. Tell me what she’s doing here. Who she is.”

With a sigh, the fae snapped her fingers and caused several others to appear around them. Together the five apparitions began to weave an illusion before Robin’s face – a vision, he knew, but one that he could trust, as he had trusted them for decades, since a dying man had given him an immortal voice and a second life.

He saw a prosperous land, a King that had been dead for over a thousand years but was destined to return; a young girl born on a farm, raised in a castle, her hands drawn to dough from a young age; the simplicities and intricacies of a lower born life. There was absolutely nothing remarkable about her. She was bland, and boring, and yet somehow had ended up here in Oberon’s library.

Robin tightened the locks on the fifth floor and remained hidden there, coming to terms with whatever this third life of his was.

Two weeks in, he realised the most unsettling thing of all: the library was no longer in the Dreaming. The Dreaming was no longer here at all. Whatever had happened to break everything, it had torn the library so far from all things that it had torn it from his homeland itself. Britain had never been home to him in the way that the Dreaming was. He had never lamented leaving it when called to Oberon’s service, and he had felt far more at home in the Dreaming than he ever had in the mundane lands.

When he felt its absence, truly felt it, Robin began to see wounds opening up within the skin of his forearms. He pulled back the bloodied sleeves of his jacket and shirt and watched as paper-thin lines began to open up upon his skin.

“Those,” Cobweb said, looking over his shoulder, “are not our doing. You should probably do something about that.”

Taking in a sharp, hissing breath, the librarian cast his newfound senses out over the library. If he was part of the library, and the library was part of him, then – yes. There. The girl was…was…

The door slammed against the wall as he charged through it, barely pausing in the hallway’s mirrors to notice how he looked. His dark hair was out of its usually smooth quoif, blood was smeared on his cheekbone, and his tailcoat was beginning to smell of copper and old parchment.

As he descended towards the second floor where she had taken up residence, Robin shifted his step – from hard and fast to soft, silent, undetectable by her bland and human vision. This nothing, this nobody, had come into his library and was defacing it. Destroying it. Slicing his body to ribbons.

He drew a deep breath. “T’would please me if you did not harm my Master’s belongings.”

In his lifetime, Robin Turner had made many people scream. It was par for the course with serving Oberon; on occasion there were those who had wronged the Court, who required correction. Emile Lemaire had been one such man – Robin remembered his screams most of all, because those memories were his now. It was how it worked.

“Who – who are -”

It seemed she was not without courage, at least. The torn books had fallen from her hand, replaced by a small, ash-handled awl. A lethal weapon if used properly – sharp and pointed enough to pierce skin and flesh, given the right application. She was no longer screaming, but he could hear her breath hitching with sobs.

“You can call me Robin, if you like,” he replied softly, with a level tone.

Still pointing the awl at him, the girl narrowed her eyes. She looked hideous – but then, she had been living feral in the library for weeks. Her hair was grey and greasy, her clothes torn as if they had been repurposed for other things, and she had dark bags underneath her eyes.

“I’m Cateline. You’re bleeding.”

“Evidently that is what happens when someone tears up my books.”

“But that -”

“Does not make any sense, no. I have found, however, that seeking sense in the past few days is…futile at best. Perhaps, at worse, madness-inducing.”

She stared at him, looking at him up and down before returning her eyes to his arms. “Gods,” she whispered, “you’re not real, are you. You’re not real. This whole thing is not real. Am I dead? No – no, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know. I should have gone to the cellar. Why didn’t I go to the cellar? If I’d just done what she said -”

Robin took a step forward and reached out his arm. He peeled back the sleeve, now irrevocably darkened, and showed it to her as if in offering. As he watched her look at him, he noticed that he could see colours dancing in her eyes – like her every feeling was laid out for him to see. She was afraid, terribly afraid. Was she afraid of him, he wondered? He had never minded making people afraid before.

But somehow he felt as if it was not quite right this time.

“Cateline,” he said, testing out the name on his tongue. She froze, the colours in her eyes shifting to deep, ruby red shot through with veins of honey gold. Now…that was certainly interesting. “Give me your water.”

“My -”

“Your water. The bottle hidden in that ingenious hammock of yours.”

He wasn’t sure how he hadn’t noticed it before – it was made of bookbinding leather, woven together like a basket and strung between two of the largest bookshelves. She had made a home for herself here in the library, which was more than could be said for him. He had a bedroom here and yet he hadn’t felt at home since…whatever it was that had happened.

“I need that.”

Robin chuckled. “I know you do. I have more. Food, as well. Enough to last a very long time. You may have both, if you pass me that bottle.”

She stared at him again, as if looking would cause him to reveal all his secrets – then slowly, not taking her eyes off him, made her way over to the hammock and reached in for the bottle. It was almost empty, but that didn’t matter. There was enough. She placed it on the ground several feet from him before skittering away to watch.

Her eyes widened and turned bright white as he started to incant – to call upon his magic, upon the Court, upon his King. He tugged idly at the ribbons around his buttons with one hand, clutching the bottle with the other. The power flowed through his fingertips and into the water, giving it a faint glow.

“You’ve magic.”

“Evidently.” Robin tilted the bottle to his lips and downed it in a single gulp. Within seconds he could feel its magic running through his blood, reaching for those broken parts of him and knitting them back together. He tore roughly at his stained sleeve, severing it from the elbow, and used it to wipe away the blood from his now undamaged arms.

“Sera told me some of the Knights had magic,” the young woman gasped, taking a step towards him. “But you don’t look like one of them.”

“The Knights?”

Cateline frowned. “I don’t understand why I would dream up someone so strange.”

“Dreams are always strange,” Robin replied, reaching out to brush a missed speck of blood from the back of his hand. “Perchance I am not the strange one, however. You are, after all, in my library.”

“You said it was your master’s library.”

“Strange but not unintelligent, then. Or not deaf, at least.”

“In here,” Cateline said, looking around herself, “I feel very stupid.”

He tilted his head, considering her. Of course she would not have learned to read – she was dressed as a peasant, and would hardly have been afforded the education. He wondered what it was that she had done, before coming here. Come to think of it –

“How did you get here, precisely?”

She wrapped her arms around herself and looked at the floor. “I ran through the mist.”

In the days since the Breaking had happened, Robin had been shocked by many things. His powers, the library’s fractured nature, the isolation, the mist that hovered outside the windows and the open walls of the north wing and refused to come near him. But the idea that someone had come through it, was…

Nonsense. Insane.

Strange.

He hadn’t felt so at home since it had happened.

A wide, brilliant smile unfolded across his face and made the woman in front of him look as astonished as he had been moments before. “Madam,” he said, sweeping a bow worthy of the Queen herself, “please allow me to apologise for my behaviour. It would appear that I have been quite wrong about you.”

Cateline’s lips parted. “You…have?”

“Indeed. I am afraid I thought you plain, and insipidly uninteresting.” A hurt expression flashed across her features, and he knelt down, reaching for her hand. “When in fact, I do believe that you are the most extraordinary thing to happen to me since – well, since the mist.”

Of all the reactions Robin had expected to his proclamation, tears were not one. She reached out and placed her hand in his. “You know what it is, don’t you?” she asked, her voice cracking. “All these books – this knowledge, this wisdom – you know what the mist is, don’t you? You know how to get through it – how I can get home?”

Robin looked down at their hands and ran his bloody thumb over the back of hers. “A great many things have happened since the mist came. I am quite uncertain about almost all of them. Except…one.” He looked up at her, rising slowly to his feet. “I know that to go into the mist is to die. There is this. This place. This place is everything.”

He caught her in his arms when her legs gave out beneath her.

Cateline had only ever slept in two beds. Her bed in the farm, which was filled with sheep’s wool and she had thought the softest thing in all creation – and her bed in the castle, which was made by the King’s craftsmen and was a hundred times more comfortable.

She woke up in a bed large enough for three, which rested at the heart of four carved pillars – they bore at their top a thick, velvet canopy that hung all about the sides like curtains. They were pulled together on all sides, the only light a faintly glowing lantern that hung from the peak at the centre of the fabric ceiling. Her head was rested upon silk pillows, her limbs tangled in the same impossibly soft fabric.

And she wasn’t wearing any clothes.

The reality of this greeted her as she sat upright, looking down at her bare chest. Someone had undressed her – and given that there was only one other person here, if he was actually real at all, there were few options. A stranger about whom she knew nothing but a name had taken all of her clothes. From her body.

Carefully tugging the closest layer of the bedsheets, Cateline wrapped herself into decency and reached for the curtain on her right. The room she found herself in was as ostentatious as the bed itself – deep greens and blues and dozens of tiny gems that illuminated the space. It was empty, but there was a dress draped over the back of the dressing table’s ornate chair. A scrap of paper with some scrawl on it had been attached to it, leaving her with the burning reminder that she couldn’t make out a word of it.

She pulled on the undergarments and the beautiful, deep pink gown. It was made of lace and silk, so elegant and soft that she could easily imagine the Queen herself wearing it – it trailed down to the floor and several inches around her. Lifting her eyes, Cateline looked in the mirror – and winced. She looked, not unsurprisingly, like a scruffy peasant who had stolen the Queen’s own gown.

There was a hairbrush and comb upon the table. She took them and began, roughly, to try and draw her hair into something resembling presentable. Once it was braided back it did, at least, look less like a rat’s nest.

Taking a deep breath and tugging up her trailing skirt, Cateline headed out of the room.

“Ah,” hummed her host as she stepped from the hallway into a large sitting room. “I wondered how long you would be asleep. I see you found my gift.”

A number of responses flitted around in Cateline’s head: had he undressed her? How long had she been asleep? Where were these rooms? Why did he have a gown? – but she thought better of each of them. Instead she reached out and awkwardly offered him his own note.

“I do not require this back,” he remarked, quirking an eyebrow in a way that reminded Cateline uncomfortably of Sera. Then he paused. “You can’t read it, can you.”

Cateline gritted her teeth. “What does it say?”

“To my unfortunate guest. May this make you feel a little more comfortable. I believe pink is your colour.”

“I’m not a guest,” she said, something turning over in her gut. “I’m a prisoner.”

The man – Robin – looked away. As he turned his head, Cateline got a better look at the strange markings on the side of his face. Intricate, thin lines of black and blue and sea-green, all woven in upon one another. They stretched out across his defined cheekbone like a spilling shadow, tracing lines down through the stubble on his jaw.

He was, she realised, even more handsome than the King. The King had been beautiful too, but when Robin spoke, he turned her insides to jelly.

“…yes. But I assure you, it is not my intention to keep you trapped here. To keep either of us trapped here. I fear it is simply a fact of – how things are, now. Would you like to sit down?”

Cateline looked down at the floor, back up at him, and then sat on the chair across from him. “Where are we?”

“In the library of King Oberon. Or, at least, what is left of it. I am sure you have noticed that the building is not quite…whole.” He looked away from her. “These rooms encompass merely the fiction section.”

“What kingdom is your master from? I don’t think he’s ever visited Celliwig.”

Robin’s face creased in astonishment. “Ever visi – oh. Oh.” The sound fell from his lips in a breathy way that stole Cateline’s own. “Just like I – that…that should not be possible at all.”

“What?” She didn’t want to ask, but she knew that she had to, creeping forward to the edge of her seat and leaning towards him. “What isn’t possible?”

“If you’re from Celliwig…you’re from the court of King Arthur.”

She nodded. “I don’t see why that’s so hard to believe. I’m sure most of the world has heard of his quests and -”

“Cateline, Arthur died over 1300 years ago.”

Part of her wished that she was going to collapse again. Faint dead away, and be free of this madness. But no – she was here. She was still here, sitting in a silk gown with a man who was far, far too handsome to be real and far, far too nonsensical to be a dream.

So Cateline stood up, gathered the too-long skirts in her hands, and quietly walked out of the room. She noted, once she had made it back down to the second floor, that Robin did not attempt to stop her. In fact, he didn’t say anything at all. Food and drink would appear in the corridor each day, without fail, and she would eat it and return to her nest – that gesture of support the extent of their relationship in the ensuing days.

The problem was that she liked understanding things.

It wasn’t enough to just hide downstairs and continue eking out the strange, survivalist life she had been since coming to…the library. She just couldn’t do it. She was bored, and she was afraid, and she didn’t know what was going on. And she was in a library, surrounded by books.

The next day she went hunting through the stacks, searching for something that looked like it had been written for – well, for someone who couldn’t read very much.

It was a start.

He could feel it when she started taking the books from the shelves. At first Robin thought that it was a form of revenge – that she was going to harm him, again, but this time purposefully. Then a faint tingle, like the hum of magic, ran down his spine and into the small of his back.

She wasn’t defacing them. She was reading them.

The next day, he left a set of cards with her food – alphabets, linking the sounds she knew to the letters she could see. The day after he left examples of simple words, nouns that could be explained with the pictures he drew alongside them. The day after he left more, faces with emotions and their names. Each time they disappeared, leaving only the empty cups and plates she had used behind.

In a week she was reading words. In two weeks, sentences. In a month she was fluent. Her gentle touch on the books became reverent, as they opened up worlds to her that were previously locked away – and Robin felt every moment of it, as if her fingertips were tracing the words over his skin.

After two months of living together in complete isolation, Cateline came to the fifth floor and knocked on the door to his living room.

“You’re a story, aren’t you,” she blurted, as soon as he stepped in front of her. “You’re not a person at all, you’re a character in a story – I found you, here, in this. It’s called a play, it’s by a man – a man who seems to know everything. He knows you. You’re here.”

Robin’s lips quirked. “How now, spirit?” he murmured, his voice a low hum. “Wither wander thou?”

The ends of the gown he had given her shook around her knees as she stepped towards him. He became distracted by the motion; she had cut at least two feet from the material. He hoped that he never had to explain to the other librarians how their clothes had gotten so torn.

“Yes – yes, that’s what he says. That’s what you are. You’re not Robin, you’re a Robin. Robin Goodfellow. Hobgoblin, sweet Puck.”

He wasn’t, of course. His mother had known he was going to have the blood of their line, shadowed blood, Fae blood. She had named him Robin as a joke – a joke that, it seemed, was going to stick with him forever.

“Sweet, am I?” he said, so softly he could see her shiver. “From what I recall, Oberon’s jester was a poisoner and a trickster.”

Cateline swallowed, wavering on the spot. “You’ve not killed me yet.”

“I have not. Yet.”

Cateline looked up at him with wide, yellow-edged eyes. Then she nodded, as if that settled everything, and walked back down the corridor. He did not see her again for another week.

In the days where she was away, devouring more of his library with every waking moment and starving herself of sleep, Robin began to notice…something. He was unsure what. The presence of the mist was always there in the back of his mind, and as time drew on it was beginning to press.

Was it the Story? Could it be? He had always known, somehow, that chaos would bring it to him. Tricks and illusions and service to the one who may as well have been Lord of them had been his life. His devotion. In the weeks since the mist came, he had lain awake day after day wondering what all that devotion had brought him. What chaos had, in the end, brought him.

Whenever he fell asleep, he saw a young woman in a torn pink gown.

She felt him before she saw him. He hadn’t come down into the lower floors since the first time – it was her space, where she was safe with the books, and to have him there was strange. Real or not, he was distracting, and she did not want to be distracted by him when there were a hundred thousand lifetimes to discover.

“Hello, Cateline.”

Books did not come with sound. They did not have the silky smooth, low timbre of his voice – his voice that made her curl her toes into the plush carpet of Oberon’s library. She stayed on the lounger, staring down at the book in her lap. Chaucer was archaic and difficult, but she found puzzling the words out to be satisfying. Besides, they were funny, and she liked the casual wit of his bawdy humour. It reminded her of home.

“I don’t wish to interrupt you,” Robin said, stepping closer to her. She could all but feel him looming inches behind her.

“Well,” she replied, cutting off the rest of his greeting, “you are a little late to avoid that.”

He chuckled, and her cheeks started heating up. “Very true. I only wondered – it is very lonely here.”

“But I’m not alone. I have a million friends here, in the books. I’ve barely met any of them yet.”

Robin brushed the tips of his fingers over her bare shoulder, and she twisted in the seat to look up at him. He was paler than she remembered, the markings on his face standing out in stark contrast. She wondered whether they were just on his face – and then quickly dismissed that thought.

“I want to show you something.” He turned his hand, offering it to her palm up. “Something you haven’t seen.”

Cateline frowned at his hand. “I’ve seen everything here.”

“No,” he said, a faint smile on his lips. “Not everything. The fifth floor is a lot larger than two rooms and a hallway.”

“I don’t see what there is up there that could possibly be more interesting than all of these. I read the Greek tragedies yesterday.”

She had devoured them, in fact. There was something about them that just made her feel…at home. As if she had stepped into a world where everything made sense at last. She didn’t understand it, but it was comforting anyway.

“…all of them?”

Cateline folded over the corner of the page she was on, placed the book to one side, and took Robin’s hand. “Yes, all of them. Why is that so hard to believe? It’s not as if there’s anything else to do.”

“When you came here,” Robin pointed out, tucking her hand into the crook of his elbow as they walked, “you couldn’t read. It’s only been three months. Perhaps not even that long.”

“Or it might have been longer. There’s no sun now, no night, just the mist. It’s impossible to tell.”

“Very true.”

They walked to the fifth floor at a leisurely pace, like she had once walked with Sera around the castle gardens – when they had first changed from friends to…something else. It made her heart ache, slightly. Cateline did her best to push aside the knowledge that she would never see her lover again and held slightly tighter to the spirit’s jacketed arm.

He led her past his rooms, around the curve of the corridor, and down towards the other end. When they stopped she looked up at him, expecting him to reach for a key – but he simply placed his free hand on the door. She heard it click somewhere within itself.

“How do you -”

“I haven’t the foggiest.”

Cateline caught her bottom lip between her teeth. It was just further proof that he wasn’t real, which made it all the stranger that she could feel the tense muscles of his arm beneath her fingertips. He still dressed in the odd way he always had, with dark coloured coats that curled at the back and high-collared shirts left slightly open. She didn’t want to look at him – there was the chance he might look back – so she darted her eyes to the right of them and watched him in the mirror panels that lined the entire hallway.

Then he pushed the door open and Cateline quickly forgot that he was there at all.

The ceiling went up, up, then arched in a smooth dome. It was painted jet black but was lit up – hundreds of crystals embedded into the ceiling shed a magical kind of light down onto the room below. Cushions and throws and all manner of comfortable thing covered the plush, purple carpet, spread around in a wide circle.

“There are no books on astrology in this part of the library, of course,” Robin said as he stepped forward to stand beside her again. She hadn’t even realised that she had walked into the room. “But it seems that whatever sundered the building did at least leave us the observatory.”

“Observatory,” Cateline repeated. She’d never heard the word before, even in all of the books.

“A place where you can watch the stars.”

She looked up at him again, still frowning. In the dim light, shadows played over his face and somehow made it impossible to focus on anything else. “You can watch the stars from outside.”

Robin chuckled and lowered his head. “Not anymore.”

“Oh.”

“I’m going to leave the room open. You can come up here whenever you want.”

She realised, belatedly, that he had walked out of the room – having been too busy staring at the crystal stars to notice. All things considered, Cateline probably shouldn’t care if the strange man she had dreamed up walked away from her.

But she was at the door and calling after him without really thinking.

“You don’t have to leave. I mean, it’s your room as well. I wouldn’t mind if – if you wanted to stay in it.”

After all, he wasn’t real. It didn’t matter really. It certainly didn’t make her breath pinch when he kept walking away from her, down the stairs and into the library – and she definitely didn’t sigh in relief when he returned with the book she’d been reading and one of his own. No, that would be silly. Because he wasn’t real.

Things had changed after that. Cateline had continued to sleep in the hammock on the second floor, but she no longer hid from him – nor did he make any efforts to hide from her. Mostly they sat and they read; her enthusiasm for the library was catching, and made him feel stronger even though each day seemed to pull on him more and more. He showed her how to look after the books and how to find things using the catalogue, whilst she showed him how to bake sweet rolls made with currants. He had even tried to show her simple spells, but the undines fell through her fingers before she could control them.

Sometimes, in the dim light of the observatory, he would catch her looking at him with the same honey-gold ring around her eyes. As soon as he glanced at her she would look away, but there was no mistaking her expression. She was doing it again, eyes glimmering over the edge of her book, her toes wriggling where they were tucked to her side. They were not far from each other – it would be very easy to give her what she wanted. But if she was going to be his only companion for the rest of his life, he was going to do this properly.

So he reached out and tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear, careful to catch her skin with the tips of his fingers.

“T-thank you,” she said, more breath than words, her cheeks flaming as she looked back at her book.

He considered it a compliment to his willpower that he did not laugh at the picture she made. Instead he returned his attention to the book in his hands, and made no further move to touch her for the rest of the evening – or the next day, or even the day after that. If they had all the time in the world, then he was going to make her wait.

The next time it happened it was a simple brush of his hand over her back, guiding her into the room ahead of them. Another time it was a touch on the back of her arm to get her attention. One evening he even pretended to stumble, pressing her against the bookshelves. She had whimpered that time; he had left quickly thereafter, giving her nothing more than a glance over his shoulder.

In the long days that stretched between those moments, the two of them looked after the library – no small feat for two people in hundreds of square feet of space. It was in better condition than it had been since it had broken – even the books that Cateline had torn up months ago had been repaired, and everything was in its place – when they weren’t reading it, of course. But he was still getting tireder.

When Cateline was asleep on the second floor, Cobweb found him on the stairs. He looked at the waif-like fae, who stared at him with blank, empty eyes. “If you really want to see,” she said, “I’ll show you.”

Robin followed Cobweb into his own bedroom and looked down at himself. He was lying on the bed, one hand tangled in a head of chocolate brown hair that rested against his chest.

“It’s going to be alright,” he heard himself say – his voice was reedy and thin and nothing like it normally sounded. “We’ll see each other again before you know it. I promise.”

“No we won’t – you’re leaving me here, alone, you’re abandoning me -”

“Cateline. Cateline, I’m not. You’ll understand soon, I swear.”

She pulled back from him with fury and gentleness all in one – reaching out to cup his emaciated face in her hands. Across from the two of them, the wallpaper began to peel, and all the candles on the dressing table started to melt.

“You’re not allowed to die,” she began, before breaking off in horror. “Robin – Robin!”

He didn’t need to check to see if he had stopped breathing or not; it was clear from the way she was sobbing. From the way she was beating against his chest as if trying to get his heart to start beating again. From the fact that he could hear it – a chorus of whispers, just like he had heard when Emile had died in his arms.

The voice went to the closest person who could bear it. And Cateline was the only person here with him.

Robin turned away before he could see it happen to her.

When the whispers and sobs had faded, he turned back to the empty bed and sighed. What was killing him? It didn’t matter, really. Perhaps it was the library. Perhaps he wasn’t meant to be here, like this – perhaps he couldn’t bear the responsibility of it. Perhaps something had broken inside him when the library had broken. Either way…either way, he was dying, and he wasn’t going to waste any more time.

Cateline didn’t see Robin the next morning, nor even partway into the afternoon. It jarred her to realise that she had become so used to his company that it was painful to be without it. Had she forgotten about everyone in Celliwig, just like that? Just because someone who might not have been real had handed her the keys to a thousand lifetimes?

By the evening she had resolved to find out what was going on – they were trapped here, so she ought to make sure he hadn’t done anything stupid. Or, more importantly, that she hadn’t done anything stupid. Had he caught her staring the night before? Was he just feeling embarrassed that he’d tripped and –

No, she’d done enough thinking about that in the small hours of the morning. And some things that weren’t thinking, too – things that Sera had taught her before she’d left to become a Knight. Right now, she was just going to see if he was alright, and that was all.

He pulled the door open barely a heartbeat after she knocked, and stared at her intently. Sometimes Cateline thought he looked at her as if he were trying to look through her. She caught her bottom lip between her teeth; he was only half-dressed, wearing trousers that seemed too tight to move in and a shirt that was open halfway down his chest. She could see the faint, paper-thin outlines of markings over his heart – blue and green and black.

“Are you -”

Robin caught the rest of her words with his lips.

She had never been kissed by a man – or a boy, for that matter. There had just been Sera, and that was it – she had never had time to want anything else. And Robin…Robin was beautiful. Robin was hard in ways that Sera hadn’t been and soft in ways that she had. It didn’t seem to matter that she was hesitant and nervous. It didn’t seem to matter that there was a chance that he wasn’t real at all.

Because he’d backed her against the wall in the hallway, one hand wrapped around her hip and pinning her down; because sometimes when he drew back from kissing her he would look at her like he wanted to devour her; because his leg was pressed between hers and she felt like she was burning.

If this was a dream, Cateline thought, it was worth a hundred – because it felt so very, very real.

Her gown ripped when he pulled it from her, and she tangled herself in the silk sheets of the bed when they fell into it, and he fell so heavily onto her that she winced – but it didn’t matter, because she didn’t care anymore. She didn’t care if he was real or if he wasn’t. She didn’t care that she was trapped here. She didn’t care that the world had become mist and left them with nothing but each other and books.

Because it had left them with each other.

It took seventeen months for Robin to die.

He solved the riddle in the end – it was the Dreaming. The library was from the Dreaming, it was meant to be in the Dreaming, but it had been severed from it. And he was the library. The library was part of him, just as much as Emile’s voice was. His voice. The voice that was going to be Cateline’s.

It didn’t happen all at once, like he had seen in the vision. Perhaps he had changed it by loving her. Perhaps it was always meant to be a warning, and was never going to come true. But his voice didn’t pass to Cateline at the moment he died; it crawled into her piece by piece. As he grew weaker, she grew stronger.

You look exhausted – did you not eat the bread I gave you? I didn’t raise it just so you could ignore it.

I don’t like it when you put your eyes on me so much. I’m not going anywhere.

Here, look – I found it underneath one of the bookshelves. I think it’s about wish palaces, which is strange, because this part of the library is meant to be false stories.

If you’re worried about falling asleep, maybe we should mend the Oracle’s tools; they pulled pages from inside you before when I shattered them.

You’re not going to pull clouds from me by covering me in honey, Puck.

The funniest part – because he was going to find something joyous in watching himself die – was that she didn’t even seem to notice. She changed and changed and changed and no one could see it but him. She was still the same as she’d always been – curious and stubborn and practical and romantic – but now she was so much more. She was mischievous and vindictive like him; she was cold and righteous like Emile had been.

So Robin did the only thing that he could do: he loved her with everything that he had, until his last breath, and when he died he found comfort in the fact that she wouldn’t notice it at all.

Dawn rises, and not a soul notices.

There is no true dawn in the east wing of her Library; Cateline’s mind and body have long since adjusted to the constant grey light of the outside, where the wasteland rails against the stone walls – but never quite manages to make it into her safe haven. Titania and Oberon have seen to that, the arboreal strength of their royal court holding fast against the creatures that would make their incursion. Cateline is not certain what the vast wasteland that stretches out around her Library is – for the Queen’s messenger has told her that it is not yet time for her to brave it, and she trusts the Queen with all of her soul.

She swings noiselessly out of her hammock, a sling of thick bookbinding leather strung between the stacks in the drama room. There is something about the atmosphere of her Library that urges Cateline to maintain silence in the reading rooms, even though it’s been years and the books always leave her alone when she’s there. Picking up her case – there are always books that need their bindings fixed – she pulls open the door to the drama room with effort and slips outside into the corridor.

It is entirely empty, and devoid of sound. Cateline frowns.

“Psst!” she hisses, closing the door behind her and darting to the right – towards the giant reading rooms that house novels and prose stories, leaving drama and poetry behind her. Her footsteps click noisily against the flagstones.

As she reaches the door to the main reading room, she pauses. The echo of her footsteps has changed, bleeding out as if the corridor has become effortlessly larger. She grins wildly and spins around, her skirts whipping out.

“How now, little library ghost?” asks her sudden companion, leaning against the wall with arms folded. His ethereal robes billow around him like willow branches swaying in the wind, and on his pale face a wry smile gleams, lips painted red like a mummer’s.

Cateline bounces on the spot and bounds forward, reaching out to take his hands in hers. They are cold to her touch, as if dead, but the frigid caress no longer surprises her. “My ears have not yet drunk a hundred words of that tongue’s uttering, yet I know the sound: fair spirit! My heart is light with joy to see you.”

The apparition’s face twists into a frown, and he lifts one finger to press it to Cateline’s lips, silencing her happy greeting. She mirrors his expression and glances around anxiously.

“My master and mistress bade me bring you to them presently,” the spirit explains in a low voice. “Fear not! ‘Tis an auspicious day that they do summon thee. Art thou prepared?”

“Prepared?” Cateline asks blankly, looking down at the case on the floor beside her. “I know not what to take.”

The spirit makes no reply save to place his hand just above her heart, smiling gently.

“Oh, sweet Puck!” exclaims Cateline, her eyes widening as the realisation finally dawns – there is one thing, and one thing only that his royal masters would summon her for. “I do not have the lines for this! There has been no rehearsal. I cannot possibly be prepared!”

Ethereal Puck scoops her into his arms in a brief embrace before pulling back to cup her face in a frozen frame. “Thou art a storyteller, little library ghost,” he says with a grin. “Naught shall harm thee whilst words rest on your heart. Look to thy talisman if thou’rt so afeared! I am always there, so with my fellows – steadfast allies all to thy pursuit! But come now, dearest one. Come – and behold at last the great beyond!”

“What stories we might tell,” whispers Cateline helplessly, “with new scenes to replay!”

Taking the spirit’s hand, she dashes with him through the corridors, coming at length to the giant mahogany doors that – for what must be years – she has only dreamt of opening. Flanking the towering gateway are Oberon and Titania, so dazzling in their splendour that Cateline cannot help but fall to her knees upon beholding them.

“Rise, dear heart,” whispers Titania, offering her slender hand to Cateline. “Be not afraid. Look to your talisman – there shall you find guidance!”

“Most gracious Queen!” exclaims Cateline, feeling faint at the sight, “I beg of thee, this is my home. My Library. Must I go?”

She shivers as Oberon reaches out and places a hand on her shoulder in a fatherly gesture of support. Puck has left her side, moving noiselessly as a true servant should, to stand sentinel by the great double doors. Though the King says nothing, Cateline inhales deeply and feels a little of his strength fill her.

“You must,” urges Titania, her face looking terrible for the briefest of moments. “It is foretold so, and so it must be. There are stories to be told, little library ghost. Stories to be written – stories to be found.”

The queen leans down and presses her lips to Cateline’s temple. Ice spreads through her body, yet somehow rather than freezing her still, fills it with vigour instead. Cateline’s grip tightens on the handle of her case, and she nods her head. Puck blows her a cheeky kiss as he pushes down on the wrought iron handle of the door, and she feels the King and Queen fade from behind her – their strengthening presence lingering all the same.

“My Ariel, chick,” he whispers, “that is thy charge: then to the elements be free, and fare thou well!”

The door opens, and Cateline beholds the wasteland outside her Library at last – a swirling mist that rushes forth to envelop and engulf her, so sudden that she inhales deeply of its magic and disappears within the cloud.

It is then that she wakes up, screaming for Puck – her Puck, sweet Robin Goodfellow – and clutching her case to her chest. But the walls around her are familiar, those of her binding room. Choking forth mist that does not rest on her lungs, Cateline feels tears prick at her eyes. She opens her case and takes from it her most precious talisman; runs her hands over the black binding, a rare and precious machine work, and feels their voices whisper in the back of her mind.

She knows what she has to do.

The weight of the iron handle in her shaking hands is great, but when she pulls the door open, the mist does not engulf her. She walks from her Library, and does not look back. It is time.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to see more of my writing about the characters have shaped a decade of my life, let me know in a comment, email, tweet or other message!

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