I’m delighted to the point of tears to bring you this translation of the Lore of the Underlings, which is, at best, a rat’s nest of strange and so-so tales from heaven-knows-where. Now I’m sure you’re saying, “Hurry up!” and, “Get on with it!” Who can blame you? Why pick at these crumbs while tasty cheese awaits ahead?
Well, it turns out that this is our lucky day. I’ve just come into possession of a very special document, the notes of an earlier unknown scholar of these mysterious stories, which will no doubt spread the sunny smile of knowledge over every word to reveal their origin and meaning and so on. This is exciting. Let’s read it together for the first time:
One winter noon long ago, I woke under a fresh blanket of snow in the woods I had wandered as a child, my face mashed into the rough bark of a fallen pine, hair matted with sap and the blood of a long gash across my scalp, knees cold and wet, quaking over a bed of broken bottles that stunk of cheap drink. Dizzy and sick, I rolled to my back with the sound of cracking glass and felt something press against my chest.
My eyes were swollen to slits, blind but for a blur of white and diamond light cast in ice across the snow. Still I found a place to slip a few numb fingertips between the buttons of the thick coat that covered me. The coat was not mine, nor was the secret beneath — a soft, palm-shaped pouch upon my heart. It gripped me by the ribs in a mesh of skin-like strings, strong skinny things with fingery tips.
My hand recoiled then felt again. It seemed to tremble at the touch, holding tight like a frightened child. I grabbed the pouch to pull it off, but something made me stop.
Instead I crawled away, to the east I hoped and bound for home.
By evening I had made my feet and staggered through the trees. But as we passed to darkness, the fingers on my flesh turned to claws that latched on strong. They pierced and pulled, digging deeper with each step. I ripped my coat open and tore at the thing in vain. Bowed in pain I cried out loud, “God damn you! No! Let go!”
And to my wonder, it did… a bit.
We went on. Before long, the forest gave way to open fields, and the fields to the flickering lights of town. I was glad to find the streets empty, to sneak by unseen. All were asleep or in the square where, despite the witching hour, the church glowed warm and bright against winter’s bed of white. Christmas Eve would soon turn Christmas Day.
My breath turned crystal in the icy air.
We reached my door as midnight came and the church bell tolled of joy. But the palm pouch shivered at the noise. It let go like an unclenched fist and dropped cold in the snow. I pulled it inside then fell as well to the floor in a heap and deep into a troubled dream.
Hi, me again. Pardon the interruption. (This might be a good time for a snack break if you need a little something to carry on.)
I’ve got to say that I’m not a big fan so far. I mean, personal anecdotes and travelogues have no place in a serious study of bookly things like this. God bless him (or her), but talk about self-indulgence!
Anyhow, I’m optimistic that the good part with citations and footnotes is not far off. I can feel it. Let’s press ahead. Chin up!
Half awake, I washed my wounds each day expecting them to heal, but instead they wept fresh and raw. Against all sense, I turned to the lifeless sack. I held it in my hands and felt every edge of its smooth skin, almost like leather dyed rich gold and brown. I found no way in, no seam or flaw to reveal what it hid.
So I cut it, but it would not cut. I tore but made no tear. An axe could not split it. Lit it would not burn. It blocked my attack at every turn.
It opened with ease, like a beautiful rose, as I dozed on the eve of spring.
The pouch unfolded a fan of leaves, by the thousands and thin as can be, each one adorned in enchanting runes in the colors of every jewel. Sapphire, ruby, emerald green, marks of a nature not ours, unseen, as if shapes from another time and place all but too small for my sleepy eyes. And somehow I knew they were more, something prized. Both language and lore intertwined like vines, woven words I could feel but not read.
I kept this treasure to myself and gloved the open palm by day. At night I hid from all I’d loved and dwelled a secret world away, walking with ghosts through the leaves. And I believed. My fate to set them free, the millions sealed in silent cells among the stems and veins.
Years passed yet they remained, every voice enchained to a phantom melody, to a tongue-tied tune I could not hear. The key eluded me. No music in my ear but the bleating of a heart of gold gone bloodless, black, and cold.
Then one haunting autumn eve living half alive, turned old, I stumbled on a musty keep of moldy promises unkept. Tripped, I tipped the table top where the palm pouch slept and it tumbled to the floor upset, its fallen leaves face down. I raised my foot to pound it flat. “God damn you,” and “Take that,” I spat. But something made me stop. Instead I stooped to cup it up, my bag of burdens, in both hands.
For the first time in forever, its skin felt warm like flesh. The fingers of the palm fanned out, flexing, plying as if trying to pull unseen things from the air. Then they made the signs of the runes in pairs as a childlike voice called out crystalline clear, “God damn you! God damn you! God damn you!” It sang a mocking song.
The curse on my tongue gave their language new life at the price of a withered soul. The palm pouch puffed with a long, deep breath. The hollow swallowed me whole. The last I’d ever see. I knew it had to be.
So the lock cracked the locksmith and I became the key. Into the keyhole, turned mad.
Again, blah, blah, blah. This is surely nothing to write home about. Let’s skip to the end and see if there’s at least an Executive Summary with a nice wrap-up of the key points. Hold on… just a minute… Ah, here’s something, some loose sheets stuffed in the back:
This winter night, I walk through a deep fall of snow to the place in the woods I once woke. I bear three gifts, gifts for you — this sack of sorrows, a bottle to drown them… already empty… forgive me, and warning I leave in the voice of my ghost…
Yikes! I apologize for that. But I wish you could see. The pages go on, yet they’re wordless and stained, some of them bitten or chewed. The last does not look human-made, scratched out, bled red, and crude.
Now maybe it’s just me, but this seems to have ancient evil written all over it, which would not be good news. You know what a mess that can make once it starts to spew. Is it really worth the risk? I can offer no comfort. Do you dare take the chance? You alone must turn to read or run.
But perhaps you’re tempted by the hope of treasures in these tales.
I hear tell of shiny things along the road, nuggets of truth, pearls of wisdom, precious gems. We could seek them if you like and bring a sack for what we find. Some say there’s gold enough for all, but we must choose the golden rules from gold for fools and false profits. Be careful what you pick and your heart will lead you home in time, awake and alive, with a wealth the dream of kings.
Come then, turn the page. Let the lore begin!
Next: Translator’s notes