I was fortunate to study for a long time under the tutelage of Rheanna the Custodian of the Great Library at Rhakotis. She was a wonderful teacher and became a good friend. She was a very polite, formal and reserved person. She was always immaculately dressed and coiffured. I believe that a description that has been used by other writers describes her well – she was a very fragrant woman. She believed in strict protocol and took the Rhakoation tea ceremony very seriously. She always had Simon’s best interests at heart and worked tirelessly to help him. Ultimately, she took a big risk to help him in his great quest.
It was difficult to get behind the gracious, well-mannered and highly polished exterior to find out about the real woman beneath. Rheanna was a very private person and rarely dropped her guard. However, one very emotional day, I got to see the real Rheanna, the person behind the powdered face-mask. Rheanna lived in a different dimension a very long time ago. She had no family and there would be no descendants who could be around today. I have kept her confidence all of these long years. I don’t think she would hold it against me now to share some of her secrets with my readers. She was always the tenacious researcher who vowed that no reference be left unread and demanded that no story be left untold. She would agree that now is long past the time when her story should be told.
It was an ordinary day in Rhakotis. The Great Library was its normal whirl of efficient, quiet activity. We had been studying an ancient text for several days without success. It was written in an ancient language which we had never seen before. It seemed to predate the Great Old Ones. It was on a piece of extremely fragile parchment and Rheanna had painstakingly transcribed the symbols onto paper that we could use to study them. It had taken many days and many pots of tea before we cracked them.
It became clear that the text concerned the sentient species that existed before the rise of humankind. At the time, I was already aware that Simon had met Marduk, the Gardener of Eden, and The Captain on the Ship of Souls. The physical description in the ancient text confirmed their pedigree. I mentioned this to Rheanna and was shocked by the response. She began to tremble, or perhaps shake would be a better description. She appeared flustered and lost her normal calm demeanour. Her eyes began to fill with tears and she struggled and eventually failed to withhold a series of sobs.
It took some time and several pots of tea to get Rheanna to calm down. She apologised profusely for her behaviour and then, slowly and reluctantly at first, but with increasing alacrity and clarity she told me her story.
“Like you, I was born in Karo to a very poor family. We didn’t have very much but we were happy. My father was a fisherman. He didn’t own a boat but worked as a deckhand for someone else. My mother was an orphan and had grown up on the streets. She did odd jobs, cleaning and sewing to help support us. I was their first child. She couldn’t read or write but she would tell me stories from memory. I first heard about Gilgamesh from my mother and longed to see the Hero and his Sword. Isn’t it funny how things turn out?” Rheanna paused for a moment, wiped a few tears from her eyes and seemed to pull herself together again.
“I was about to turn six when there was a double tragedy. My mother was pregnant and I was hoping for a little brother to help to look after. Her pregnancy was difficult and her labour long and debilitating. The baby was large and in the breech position. When he was eventually free, he was stillborn. My exhausted mother passed out and bled to death. When I heard about Ju’s tragic death on that cold birthing stone, it took me back to my own past. My father was devastated but had to keep working. Two weeks later, he was swept overboard by a freak wave and drowned. I learned about it on my sixth birthday. I have never celebrated my birthday since. I was left alone in the world.” She seemed stronger now. The tears were gone. It was as if she had come to terms with these tragedies long ago and put them behind her.
“There was worse to come though. My grandfather, my father’s father, still lived and he begrudgingly took me in. I was no longer allowed to go to school but had to slave for him all day. If I did the slightest thing wrong he would beat me with a stick. At night, he made me share his bed and the things he did to me made the stick seem pleasant.” Rheanna shuddered at the memory but was not to be deterred.
“I could only put up with it for so long. One day, I stole what little money there was in the house and stowed away on the ferry to Makkah. I had no idea what I was going to do when I got there but I just had to get away. Half-way through the journey, a great storm sprang up. Afterwards, I heard people say that it was like nothing they had ever seen. It was as if it were supernatural. I was hiding behind some baskets of fruit on the deck and both the baskets and I were blown overboard as if we were feathers. I sank into the cold water and saw my brief life pass before my eyes. I kissed my mother for a final time and received a hug from my father. The water was filling my lungs. I had no strength left. I closed my eyes and died.”
Well, as a bard you can imagine that this story had my complete attention. Rheanna looked at me as if to say, ‘I bet you don’t believe me!’ In truth, I found her story compelling and I believed every word. You only had to look into her eyes to know that she spoke the truth. I didn’t press her and we took more tea and spoke about the weather. Eventually, she continued.
“I woke up in a bunk bed on another ship. I thought that a passing ship must have spotted me and plucked me from the water. There was no one around so I got up. It was a small wooden sailing boat. I left the cabin and went on deck. It was foggy and the air smelt strange. I know now, from Simon’s experience, that I was in Limbo. At the time, I thought that we sailed through a normal fog. I saw a light under another door and opened it. I entered a warm cosy cabin. At the time, I couldn’t have been paying much attention. I only remember red wallpaper, though Simon described it more vividly. I now know that I was indeed dead and that I sailed on the Ship of Souls with an old man who looked after me and taught me many things, not least an inquisitiveness to find the truth in history. He looked a lot like Manfred. He was a Great Sage and his name was Al-Alim.” Rheanna’s expression was dreamy now, as if she were being transported back to a favourite place and time.
“I don’t know how long I stayed there. We seemed to exist outside of normal time, which I now know to be the case. Other than a crew man who brought us food and drink, we never saw anyone else. Then one day a bell rang and Al-Alim told me it was time to see the Captain. As I left the cabin, I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror on the wall that I had never noticed before. Instead of a frightened, abused child of six, I saw a proud young woman of at least sixteen. How it had happened in just a few days I could not explain.”
Rheanna paused again and looked at me. She held my gaze and it was as if she looked into my soul. Only wizards have done that to me. “I believe that I can trust you,” she said. “What I tell you now, I do in absolute confidence. You must never tell another living soul, especially Simon or Manfred. Do you promise?”
Of course I promised and until now I have honoured that promise. Now that it is all behind us, I fell free to tell Rheanna’s story. After all, why else would she tell a bard?”
“I was taken aback by the Captain. She was a strange-looking stick-like woman with funny eyes of different colours and only three fingers on each hand. But she was friendly enough and soon put me at my ease. The text we deciphered today took me back to that meeting. She spoke of a tapestry, that I didn’t understand until we learned so much more recently. She talked about fate and free will and how we all had choices to make. She told me that she could give me a second chance, because I had a very important role to play. I could stop the tapestry from unravelling. Al-Alim had prepared me well because I readily agreed to my assigned task. I looked forward with anticipation to the life I had ahead of me. I used some words then, that I have heard you utter too. I accepted a Quest for Knowledge. I know that I have a vital role still to play as I think do you. I have dedicated my life to finding out the information that Simon needs or will need to defeat Gadiel. The Ship of Souls sailed into Rhakotis harbour late one night with the lighthouse burning and the Great Sage Adapa guiding us in. Al-Amin and the Captain saw me off. Each had some parting words for me. ‘There are few wizards left in FirstWorld these days. Not all of them can be trusted. But, when Manfred calls be ready to answer,’ Al-Alim said. I began working in the Great Library in the lowest position that existed. I worked my way up to eventually become Custodian. I never forgot those words and when the summons to the Council of the Wise came, I was ready. ‘One day you will have a choice to make. Will you honour a wizard or a bard? Simon will face the same dilemma. Be guided by his choice,’ the Captain said. I’m still waiting for that day to arrive. I think that you and I are destined to meet again.”
The look Rheanna gave me made me shiver. I wasn’t to know then what was ahead of me. Unknowingly, I was able to play a pivotal role in helping Simon break the time loop that we were all stuck in. Rheanna played an important part in making it happen and she was forced to choose between her loyalty to Manfred and her friendship with me. The Captain’s words came to pass.
Rheanna was vindicated. Unfortunately, she never knew whether her work turned out to be successful or not. Simon and Jhamed disappeared from our timeline. Rheanna continued to study and held the post of Custodian of the Great Library for a record number of years. She published many books – almost as many as I have. She lived to a ripe old age but never married or had a family. Her line ended with her death. After her death, in her honour, Manfred had an extra statue erected in the Avenue of Heroes