Songs of Fire

John Peters

William Anders surveyed his shelves, searching for a particular time among his unparalleled collection. Nowhere in all of Vamuli was a collection of ancient texts as fine as these, at least certainly not like this. He found it resting on the shelf third from the top, caked in dust. Thought-Messenger: A study of ancient Jormungan kennings. Anders wheeled over his stool, carefully removing the book from its resting place. The book was three times as old as him, and easily three times as valuable. Anders had good reason to believe that this was the only copy left, saved by none other than himself from the great library fire ten years ago.

Lifting the pages with surgical precision, careful not to disturb the fragile parchment, Anders searched for the kenning that would best fit his next line. He needed a word for “warmage”, one that rhymed with the Jormun word for war, Idolar.

“Furru-Elar, Fire-lord.” He muttered, reading from the book. “Perfect.” Fire magic was the only
kind the Jormuns had been any good at, and the imagery of fire and flame was pervasive throughout their poetry. He turned to the scroll on his desk, back to work on what was to be his magnum opus.

A novelty. Interesting, but unnecessary. Too much effort. These were the things people had said about him, about his work. Twelve years ago, he had published a collection of poems nine years in the making, The Swallow-Songs. At the time, he had considered it an unparalleled achievement in Jormun writing. A perfection of his craft. There had only been one buyer. A museum curator living in Tuni, working for the National Museum of History, bought the original manuscript for a tidy sum. For several years, it was on display, alongside a translation of the work and a quick guide on reading the Jormun language. After all, Anders was the only living speaker. The Jormuns had died out a thousand years ago, as a result of particularly harsh snowstorms and territorial wars with the Torvali. The Torvali had developed crops that could survive the harsh conditions this far up the mountain while the game the Jormun hunted died out, leaving them to starve.

Anders had always been fascinated by the Jormun artifacts seen in museums, finely carved stone that had survived the test of time. Through the painstaking dedication of nearly half his life and a bit of luck, he had finally reconstructed the language. As the only archaeologist in the employment of the government at the time, he recalled standing in front of his superiors, explaining his findings.

“What’s the use?” Chancellor Gormi had asked him. “The Jormun died long ago. What significance does this alphabet have today? Without appropriate documentation, it’s of no use to our mages.”

“Not everything is about magic.” Anders tried to explain. “With the Jormun language cracked, we can read inscriptions on stone tablets or ancient weapons, to learn more about their way of life!”

“I repeat, what’s the use in reading old rocks?” Gormi repeated. “Torvalus is a forward-thinking nation, Mr., err, Anders is it?”

“Yes sir.”

“Sounds Yalmish.”

“My great-grandfather immigrated from Yalmud.” He explained.

“Mr. Anders, Torvalus is in a constant state of progression. As we speak, there are countless academics in this building alone developing new and better weaponry, honing the ancient magical arts, and those studying advancements so secretive I cannot share them. What use is the tongue of a dead tribe in propelling our nation forward?”

Anders began to stammer, trying to formulate a response, but was cut off.

“If we ever need something deciphered, we’ll send for you. Until then, good day.” Gormi gathered his things and left the room as Anders stood there, clutching his papers.

Back in the present, he realized that pen ink was dripping onto the paper. Grabbing a piece of cloth, he did his best to dab it up. It was an unfortunate blotch on an otherwise flawless manuscript, but it would have to do. He was almost finished, and he was planning to unveil his masterpiece in less than a week’s time. The words were perfect, what was a bit of ink compared to the greatest epic in modern history? The Songs of Fire. For the past decade, it had complete hold of every waking thought. It was to be the greatest peace of poetry not just in Jormun, but in history. A three-hundred-page epic telling the tail of Rurris Ghon-Khur, the legendary warlord who had led the early Jormun people from Hyaltha below to the unforgiving tundra where Torvalus now sat. Every single page had been subject to a lifetime’s worth of work, every line its own tale. Anders’ mastery of the ancient language was at full display. Expert wordplay and brilliant imagery lined the saga of Rurris as he led his people out of Hyaltha, fought the dragon Valdi, and finally died in battle against the Torvali. In the final few pages, Rurris children, eight sons and eight daughters, vow to carry on their father’s legacy and create a grand civilization like no other.

Some artistic liberties had been taken, of course. Little was known of Rurris life outside of major historical events. But it wasn’t intended to be a historical document. It was a modern age epic, one that would be studied and read for centuries to come, a linguistic and literary accomplishment without peer.

It was four in the morning by the time he finished it, nearly 4,500 days after he had begun. He set his aching hands down to give them a long-deserved rest as he took in the moment. He had finished it. His magnum opus sat in front of him, still warm. After he had given the ink time to dry, he carefully closed the book and placed it into his drawer. Still giddy with excitement, he crawled into his bed, stories of the warring clans of the past running through his head.

Snow battered down on the walls of the carriage, and Anders gripped his satchel tightly against his chest as if to protect his work from the cold. He couldn’t risk anything happening to it now, no matter how unlikely it may be. The time had finally come to present his masterpiece to the world.

“So, headed to the big showing? Guess yer an artist o’ some sort, then?” The coachman had asked him as they left.

“I suppose. I’m a poet.” Anders replied. The sooner he was there the better. “I’m presenting my manuscript in front of the emperor today.”

“That man sure loves his arts.” The driver said. “Puttin’ on that whole big show every year.”

Anders was about ten minutes away from the Imperial Mansion. Every year, to support fine arts and magics the emperor put together a grand exhibition of the finest artists, poets, writers, and mages. It was no small feat, getting an invitation. Anders had used just about all his clout just for a chance to be considered for a spot. There, he thought, people would finally appreciate his genius, his dedication, his fierceness. Rumor held that the emperor himself was something of an antiquarian. Surely, his achievements would be recognized by society’s elite.

It was a dreary day in the capital, but the streets were as lively as ever. Couriers ran from building to building, passing along messages given to them by the government officials and professionals staying cozy in their own buildings. Plenty of people were headed the same direction as him, whether by carriage or on foot. Those who had chosen to brave the sidewalks were bundled up tightly, gripping onto their bags for dear life. Even the horses pulling the carriage were wearing thin blankets over their coats. It only seemed fair, considering they spent more time outside than all the rest, wearing only what nature had given them.

“Thank you.” Anders said, tipping the coachman with the few coins he had on hand as he stepped out of the carriage. He hurried towards the gates, careful not to slip on the ice lining the edge of the streets.

“Invitation, sir?” The guard in front asked him. Without a word, Anders dug the letter out of his pocket and handed it to the man. It was still in the envelope it had arrived in, only the wax seal had been broken. The guard took a minute to look over it, then handed it back.

“Welcome, Mr. Anders.” He said. “Please enjoy your visit.” Anders nodded and hurried into the warm, inviting mansion before his limbs froze off. The Imperial Mansion was quite easily the grandest building in all Torvalus, a peerless display of traditional Torvali architecture mixed with modern innovations. Five floors, a beautiful garden out front that bloomed despite the cold, and enough bedrooms to house the entire senate if the need arose. The entryway was carved out of solid stone, adorned with marble statues of the empire’s heroes of old. Romis the Cold, Fellier the First, Dormus the Wizened, and more, all carved with painstaking realism, Dormus’ almost disturbingly so.

The insides were just as glorious as the exterior. The emperor had the finest art collection in the land, and it was proudly displayed in every angle of his home. A painting of Fellier, the first emperor of Torvalus greeted visitors as soon as they stepped inside, his fiery gaze meeting Anders’, transcending time. Any other day, Anders would have loved to have spent hours in front of the art, taking it in, learning for it, but today was too important. He hurried to the ballroom, the path indicated by signs the servants had set out.

The ballroom itself was just as grand as the rest of the mansion, with a glass dome ceiling and golden fixtures on the wall, but grander still was the congregation it currently housed. Hundreds of artists, mages, writers, actors, and more had gathered here today to showcase their skills in front of the highest authority in the land. Near the entrance, a pair of painters had set up a stand for their work. Brothers, by the look of it. Next to them, several bright-eyed mages were practicing some sort of enchantment on a small model of a wooden boat. Magic had never been Anders’ strong suit, but he knew a fair bit about history. If he had to guess, they were trying to recreate the mythical spell cast by Romis the Cold, when he used a wooden boat to ford through snow and rock as if it were water.

He continued to walk around the room, taking brief pauses to admire the works before him, until he found his designated space. A modest wooden table had been set out for him, just as he had requested. He didn’t need any fancy displays or a large amount of room. His genius would stand out on its own merits. He pulled out the completed copy of Songs of Fire along with a smaller pocket dictionary he had written containing translations of basic Jormun words and phrases. It was foolish to assume that any patron would be able to read Songs of Fire without his assistance, of course.

The nobility and upperclassmen began to filter in, ready to survey the arts. It was nearly a half hour before any of them decided to stop by Anders’ table. A middle-aged man with graying hair was the first. He introduced himself as Darrel Fessi, an academic from the local university who studied magical history. Sensing common ground, Anders talked with him for a while about history before turning the conversation to his own work.

“Now, let me show you my life’s work.” He said, opening the book that was set out between them. “I’ve written an entire epic entirely in Jormun. It follows the life of Rurris Ghon-Khur, up until his death against the Torvali army at the hands of Fellier. I’ve incorporated many of the typical literary and poetic devices found in surviving Jormun texts, and I firmly believe this to be the greatest work of writing in the Jormun language.”

Darrel flipped through the pages, then set the book back down. “Impressive!” He said. “This must have taken quite a lot of effort. It was wonderful meeting you. Now if you’ll excuse me, one of my students is here, displaying their recreation of the formation of Heller’s Ledge.”

“Wait!” Anders urged. “I’ve written a small dictionary here, to help read Jormun. Wouldn’t you like to give it a shot yourself? It really is a fascinating language…”

“My apologies.” Darrel cut him off. “Your work is impressive, it really is. But how does it help us? The Jormun died out long ago, and we’ve learned all we can from them. Their surviving magics have already been studied exhaustively, their artifacts have been on display for centuries.”

“Well, it’s art.” Anders replied. “Art doesn’t need a grander purpose. Isn’t art for the sake of art enough? Would you say the same about the paintings littering this very mansion?”

“Those paintings tell our history, Mr. Anders. They’re important to us, our nation. The Jormun are dead. They’re irrelevant. It really is impressive what you’ve done, but it’s not as important.” Before Anders could reply, Darrel walked off to find his student.

Despite the rough ending, that conversation was easily the best one he had that morning. The rest of the visitors regarded his opus as little more than a novelty. At worst, a politician or business owner would come in and leave as soon as they heard a few lines about it. At best, a member of the nobility would find it quaint, admire his dedication, and leave after a few token words of kindness.

The emperor was his last hope. Emperor Masson made it his duty to give each and every exhibition a thorough inspection, leaving no stone unturned. If the emperor himself liked his work, nothing else would matter. No one would dare question its artistic value or literary genius. Anders made sure to keep everything on his table perfectly positioned, ready for imperial inspection.

It was about three in the afternoon by the time the emperor arrived at his own event. Accompanied by a posse of guards, politicians, assistants, and academics, he whirled out the door and turned to the painter brothers near the entrance. They were so absorbed in their work, when one of them finally noticed they nearly dropped the canvas in shock. Masson let out a hearty laugh and struck up a conversation with the brothers.

After what felt like an eternity, the emperor finally reached Anders modest little table. In a sea of such visually impressive feats of art and magic, it was almost hidden by its own plainness.

“Your Imperial Majesty.” Anders said, bowing slightly.

“This is William Anders, your majesty. He hails from Erulis, a small town on the southern edge.”

“Erulis, eh?” The emperor’s voice boomed throughout the room. “A quaint little town. The perfect image of country living. What do you have to show for us today, Mr. Anders?”

Hands shaking, Anders carefully opened his manuscript. “Your majesty, after over a decade of work, I’ve completed an epic chronicling the life of Rurris Ghon-Khur, last chieftain of the Jormun. It’s written entirely in the ancient Jormungan tongue, of which I believe myself to be the only living speaker. If your majesty would like to see it, I’ve compiled a short list of common Jormungan words and phrases in this booklet here, to be used as a translation guide.”

To his surprise, the emperor picked up both books, flipping through the pocket dictionary until he had sifted through the entire first three pages of the manuscript.

“What a wonderful piece of work!” The emperor exclaimed boisterously. “Even I, who has no knowledge of the language, can see the immense amount of care and effort put into this tale. Every line, every stanza overflowing with emotion and wit!” Anders face lit up. This was the moment he had dreamed of. His genius had been recognized, not by academics, not by the layman, but by the emperor himself.

“I-I-I’m so glad it pleases you, your imperial majesty!” Anders stammered.

“But of course! This is one of the finest examples of Torvali literature I’ve seen in years!”

Anders heart stopped. “Torvali literature, sir? It’s intended to be written in the style of ancient Jormun poetry.”

“Of course!” The emperor had begun to pass the books around to his companions. “And where else in our great nation could a man as talented as yourself be able to create something in such a style so perfectly, portraying the Jormuns as such noble savages? Truly, this is a shining example of Torvali brilliance!”

“I suppose so, your imperial majesty.” Had he done something wrong? Surely the emperor was not so daft as to misunderstand. Songs of Fire was supposed to celebrate Jormun culture, not desecrate it.

“I’d like to purchase this manuscript, Mr. Anders.” The emperor said, placing the books back down on the table. “With your help, we could translate it into Torvali. Students across the nation could experience it just as we have.”

“W-Well, many of the poetic and literary devices only make sense in Jormun.” Anders began to ramble, but the emperor had stopped listening.

“Here, drop off a copy of your book at this address as soon as you can. We’ll get right to work on a translation. A pleasure meeting you, Mr. Anders.” He handed over a slip of parchment with the address of the Bureau of Arts and Literature. All Anders could do as the emperor walked away was stare down at his table.

It was a cold, blistery day, the worst Chief Reviewer Durin had seen all month. His frozen hands fumbled over the key to his office as he desperately tried to open the door to escape into the warm Bureau. As usual, he was the first one there, at seven sharp. Business hours were eight to five, but he liked to have everything sorted before then.

He walked into his office to see a large parcel resting on his desk. Must have been dropped off pretty early, he thought to himself. Or pretty late. He did have to leave at around 2 yesterday, it could have come after then. After waiting a few minutes to allow his hands to regain feeling, he carefully opened up the box, revealing two books and an envelope. One of the books was hand-bound, with gold lettering on the front in two languages, one of which unknown to Durin. Songs of Fire. The other was considerably smaller, and appeared to be a store-bought journal, or maybe even a day-planner. Durin tore open the envelope and picked up the letter that fell out.

To Chief Reviewer Durin of the Bureur of Arts and Literature

Enclosed is the sole copy of my life’s work, an epic written entirely in the ancient Jormun language. Along with it is a small dictionary that can be used to translate it. These were requested by the emperor at this years Arts and Magic Exhibition in order to translate my work into Torvali. I personally disagree with his decision, and as such have decided to recuse myself from the translation. If you have any questions regarding the particulars of the tongue, you may reach out to me, although I regretfully inform you I have decided to leave the country. I have moved down to Hylatha and am currently living in the village of Chalis, writing stories for children to make a living. I feel as though they appreciate them more than anyone else. If you need me, simply send a message to Chalis. The community is small and tight-knit, and your message will certainly reach me.


Sincerely,

William Anders.