“I want to be an author,” Ariana declared.
The village square went silent. She was met with bewildered stares, most adults fearing what kind of child would willingly choose such a profession. Some of the adults whispered behind open palms to one another, but in such silence Ariana could hear them swearing she must be mad.
The Presentation was a yearly event, one in which all of-age children would profess their desired occupation. Community members of that occupation would then volunteer to take on the child as an apprentice, training them better for their desired trade. Ariana was only 13, but she’d known she wanted to be an author from the moment she was old enough to talk. Growing up in the orphanage, the other children had needed a distraction from the harsh realities of their world. Ariana had a vast arsenal of stories locked away in her mind, and she longed to put them to paper. The den mother of the orphanage had taught her to read and write, both of which she excelled at, but Ariana had been warned never to use to use the ink to write her stories.
“I will take the girl,” a low, gravelly voice called from the back of the audience. The village of Canal had only one author, so Ariana had anticipated Jackaby Bardolf being her only option for an apprenticeship. Nothing, however, had prepared her for actually meeting him. She had read his works, of course, wanting to familiarize herself with his style of prose, and found herself rather disappointed. She had hoped her only choice of Master for the Presentation would at least be one she’d enjoy, but his stories were dark, dismal, and often uncomfortable for Ariana to read.
As the man approached the stage, Ariana sharply inhaled and set her mind to accepting him as Master, no matter what her prejudices against his writing style were. He was a professional author, and if she truly wanted to be one as well, she would have to learn from him. The sea of villagers parted as he passed, none wanting to get too close to the man, some out of reverence and some out of fear.
Jackaby Bardolf looked as menacing as his stories. A towering man dressed in a suit the color of rainclouds, he stood beside Ariana on the stage. The announcement came from the plump Mister Hargreve, Master of Proceedings for the Presentation. “Ariana Wylde, I present you to your Master for the profession of Author, Mister Jackaby Bardolf.”
There was hesitant applause from the audience, except from Spencer, her closest friend from the orphanage. He was clapping wildly for Ariana as he awaited his own turn for Presentation. Before the applause came to an end, Jackaby turned and grimly examined Ariana. She could not read the thoughts behind his vague, slate eyes.
“Come,” was his first word to her, an emotionless command one might use with a pet. She nodded and followed her new Master, exiting the Presentation with a half-hearted smile to Spencer wishing him good luck. He tipped his faded brown cap in her direction.
“Should your stories prove acceptable, you will live with me as you train,” Jackaby began. Ariana hadn’t prepared herself for the idea that she would have to prove her skill. She was trying to focus on his instructions, but she had been distracted by her surroundings of Jackaby’s home. It was one of the larger homes in Canal, but still meager by comparison to those homes of authors in neighboring villages. Ariana shifted her weight uncomfortably as she stood before him, feeling silently stared down by the dozens of eyes of Jackaby’s extensive taxidermy collection. “There’s a spare cot in the back room and your own writing desk. You will find the work space sufficient.” At least the thought of her own area to write excited Ariana. Silver linings, she thought. “There is one rule in this household,” he warned. “You will NOT enter the basement. That is my workspace, and I will not have it defiled.”
“You are aware of the restrictions to authors, am I correct? How our books must be written?” he asked, sitting stiffly in his lounge chair. Ariana stood before him, feeling more and more like she was standing in front of the firing squad the way his eyes bore into her.
“Yes, Master Bardolf,” Ariana started.
“Jackaby,” he corrected her.
“Yes, Master Jackaby,” she began again, and his eyes squinted with annoyance. She continued, “All published books sent to market for copying and distribution must first be written with the author’s blood.”
The decree had been issued before Ariana was ever born. When books were simply written with pen and ink, anyone could be an author and anything they wrote could be sent to the masses. The government believed the market to be flooded with useless information, heretical texts, and books which promoted unpopular beliefs such as casual sexual encounters and bestiality. They wanted a way to cut back on “frivolous” writings, to only endorse the mass production of texts by truly dedicated authors (as long as they wrote books that the censors deemed acceptable). Those authors who were writing merely for the profit of having churned out a book on any topic fell by the wayside, and those dedicated to their craft continued – now putting more of themselves into their work than ever before.
“Why does the public fear us?” Jackaby asked, tenting his fingers as he awaited her response. He was testing her.
Ariana fired off her response. “They fear what they do not understand, the passion which drives an author to write, even to the point of spilling their own blood to use as ink. They do not understand why anyone would harm themself in order to publish what they believe to be mere words. And…”
“And?” he asked, his thick eyebrow raising.
“And some believe that blood has magical properties.”
He nodded, contemplating her answer, then swiftly responded. “Do not say some when you mean most. Word choice will be crucial to your career.”
Her breath caught in her throat. Had she passed his test? “Yes, Master Jackaby.”
“Now,” he ordered, “Tell me a story.”
She hadn’t passed yet. Her mind raced like the adrenaline through her veins. Searching. Searching. She needed a story. At last, she settled on one that had been Spencer’s favorite as they grew up. She wove her story for Jackaby, telling him about a young bachelor, intent on marrying his lady love, whose shining ring is stolen by a large raven just as he is about to propose. He had saved his money for years in order to purchase the perfect ring for his beloved, only to see the ring snatched away in the raven’s beak. The bachelor encounters several obstacles in pursuit of the raven, and eventually loses the hunted bird. Defeated, he returns to his bride-to-be and confesses to her his ordeal. Because the girl is overcome with love for the boy, she agrees to marry him without a ring. As the pair are feasting on fish at the celebratory dinner of their nuptials, the girl bites into something rather hard. Thinking she must have bitten into a bone, the girl removes it from her mouth only to discover she had actually been chewing on her ring, dropped by the raven over the ocean and swallowed up by this very fish.
Jackaby sat motionless while she told her story. Although she could feel his judgment weighing on her, her voice never wavered. “Acceptable,” he said, the closest thing to a compliment Ariana felt she would receive from Jackaby. “Now, go to your room and write it.”
Ariana didn’t have to use her own blood for this story. “This is merely practice. You will use the blood which I provide to you,” he said gesturing to a crystal inkwell atop the desk. She had a full supply of pens and paper, and she was delighted to find that Jackaby would be retiring for the evening while she wrote.
She had written into the wee hours of the night, pouring over the feeling of finally being able to put one of her own stories to paper. The crimson words filled page after page, until finally her story was complete, exactly the way she had told it to Jackaby. She slept, exhausted mentally and physically, and did not wake until Jackaby rapped on her door to signal the breakfast hour.
Joyous that she’d completed her first writing task, Ariana gathered the papers to present to Jackaby over breakfast. Flipping through the sheets though, she immediately noticed something was wrong. The story was not as she had written it. She recognized her own handwriting, but the story itself had changed. Some parts were the same, the beginning mostly, but the end had taken a dark turn. As the bride removed the ring from her mouth and was delighted at the recovery of her lost possession, the raven returned, hunting the shining prize. His talons clawed at her beautiful face and eyes, blinding her. Her husband, desperately trying to help his beloved, swung his knife wildly at the bird. Unable to see, the wife stumbled forward, falling towards the blade meant to protect her. Unintentionally, the groom sliced his own wife’s throat. Left with the lifeless, bloody body of his love, the groom could only watch as the raven flew off triumphantly with the ring in its beak once more.
Horrified, Ariana tore through Jackaby’s home to the kitchen, waving the papers above her head. “Wrong! It’s all wrong! What happened? This is not the story I wrote!” Her hands shook as she slammed the papers down in front of him, rattling his mug of morning brew.
Calmly, he took up the papers and read. As he reached the end of the last page, his face remained unchanged, still an indifferent, distant stare. He looked up at her. “True. This is not the original story. But I think it has been much improved. Good work, Miss Wylde.”
Ariana’s mouth fell agape in shock. “Improved? How did this even happen? This is not my story. How did it change? That’s my handwriting, but not my words.”
“Trust the blood,” was Jackaby’s answer, and much to Ariana’s defeat, it was the only one she would receive from him.
The stories continued to change, no matter what she wrote. Jackaby spent the mornings training her, assigning books for her to read and study, and in the evenings she was to write. It didn’t matter how lighthearted or cheerful her stories began, by the next morning, their endings had changed to something gruesome. She often wondered to herself if this was why Jackaby’s books were always so morbid, and she longed for the day when he’d allow her to write with her own blood. She hoped and frantically prayed that if she were to use her own blood, her stories would be the words she intended, but Jackaby told her repeatedly, as he brought her new inkwells of blood, that the results would be the same.
Disheartened, Ariana began to question whether she truly wanted to continue pursuing this profession. One morning, as she was beginning her extensive reading of the classics, there was a knock at the door.
Jackaby answered, and Ariana could make out a familiar voice saying, “Your bread delivery, Mister Bardolf.”
“Spencer!” Ariana yelled, delighted at his sudden appearance. Having only Jackaby for company had truly made her miss her friend. She raced to the door, and Jackaby stepped aside, tossing the boy a coin and taking the package to the kitchen, pausing only a moment to look back, not at Ariana but at Spencer. His thin lips gave neither frown nor smile, but for a moment Ariana thought she saw a suspicious look in his eyes.
“Was hoping to see you, I was!” Spencer exclaimed. “When you didn’t return to the orphanage, we all assumed you’d been taken in here. How’s the writing?”
The thought of her writing made Ariana feel ill. “I’m learning a lot,” were the only words she could muster. “And what of you? Delivering bread? Is that really what you picked at the Presentation?”
“Nah,” he laughed. “I actually didn’t have the slightest clue what I wanted to do, and I told ‘em that. So they asked the village for volunteers, people who needed the help. Took what I could get, you see. Mostly I work at the bakery, cleaning ovens and sweeping floors and such, but some of their customers prefer not to leave their home to shop, so for a pretty penny we deliver to them. Lucky, the days I get to help with that . Solid work, I tell you. Keeps me busy.”
“That’s wonderful, Spencer!” To Ariana, even delivering bread sounded better than continuing to write these horrible stories.
The two caught up briefly before Spencer had to continue his route. He tipped his faded cap to her, just as he had the day of the Presentation, wishing her well and that they might reunite again soon.
After Spencer had left and Ariana had returned to her studies, Jackaby ordered her to her room early. He said he would be going out for a bit, and that she needed to go ahead and start her writing for the evening. Unable to protest against her Master, Ariana retired to her room.
Hours later, she heard the door open as Jackaby returned, and heavy footsteps thudded against the wooden floor until there was the sound of another door opening. The basement. Jackaby’s work space, entirely separate from his sleeping quarters. She’d been forbidden from entering, which Ariana felt was a useless warning, as it was really the last thing she desired to do.
As the candle burned down to almost a puddle and her paper supply ran low, Ariana rethought her aversion to the basement. It had been hours since Jackaby returned home. Surely, he’d be fast asleep by now. She needed more supplies to finish her story by morning, knowing Jackaby would see the unfinished text as a failure. The thought of him seeing her as a failure as a potential author seemed far more disheartening than upsetting him by using a minor amount of his supplies. Resolved to take what she needed from the basement and quickly return to her room, Ariana crept through the house, careful not to wake Jackaby.
Cautiously, she eased the basement door open, and soundlessly slipped inside. His writing space wasn’t quite what she expected. A bare room, nothing elaborate, nothing decorative, not even his favorite books. Only a mahogany desk well-equipped with pens, paper, candles, and plenty of full ink-wells stoppered with corks. She loaded her bag with what she needed, and turned to leave, but something gave her pause. On the far wall, there was another door, and seeing it stirred a temptation to see what was on the other side. What did Jackaby keep in the rest of his sacred space? She’d already crossed the line. If he caught her now, what difference would it make which side of the door she was on?
With one last look behind her at the empty writing room, Ariana opened the door to the rest of the basement. Immediately, her breath caught in her throat. The smell was putrid, the smell of death. She hoped to herself that she was only smelling dead rats, but as she crept through the basement, she felt more like she was visiting one of the horrible scenes in Jackaby’s books.
Candles were lit all around, glinting light off of empty hooks hanging from the ceiling. The hooks reminded Ariana of something she’d seen used at the butcher shop when she was out doing the shopping with the orphanage’s den mother. Dark stains splotched the floor in the areas that she could see. She pushed onward through the darkness, in awe and terror. What was it that Jackaby did in here? Writing, she was certain, was not it.
Ariana took hold of one of the nearby candles and spread its light over what she assumed was just a table. Instead, it looked like more of a workbench, covered with an assortment of knives and other sharp, intimidating objects Ariana didn’t recognize.
“You were told never to come here,” a voice growled. She spun, seeing Jackaby approach. Her mind willed her to run, sensing the imminent danger as he stalked her through the room. Her legs were immobile though. “This is my domain, and you have invaded my privacy.”
“I-I-I needed supplies, M-Master Jackaby. I ran out,” she stammered, grasping tightly to the bag at her side. “What is this place?”
“I’ve told you, this is my writing space.” His eyes were cold, but he stopped a short distance away from his ward. Ariana’s eyes darted, wondering if she could find the exit with such little light. Instead, her eyes focused on the hook next to Jackaby. From the light of the candle he carried, she could tell this hook was different than the others.
This one was occupied.
Following her gaze, he explained. “I, too, need supplies.”
The pink flesh was definitely human, suspended face-down. Ariana felt her stomach plummet at this realization. “…but the decree?”
“Of course, a book must be written with an author’s own blood. But let’s consider word choice in that… I’d say an ‘author’s own blood’ would be considered more a matter of ownership. If I kill something, I own its life. I own its blood. Animals were good enough, at first, but their stories don’t give real resonance, you see.”
The taxidermy. Ariana stared, mortified at the monster before her. It was now that she noted a steady dripping noise at Jackaby’s feet. Blood. He was collecting it from this body. A dead body. Mere feet from her. Someone Jackaby had slain in order to use their blood as ink. He was a coward, she realized. She’d never even seen him collect his own blood. He’d had such a ready supply, she never thought to question why it always seemed fresh. He had probably never put a single drop of his own to the page.
Another realization hit Ariana. “That’s why the stories change. It’s the blood. You said to trust the blood. It’s because the blood tells a different story… always dismal, always gruesome. The blood tells another’s story…and that’s the way you like it. It’s why your books are so full of repulsive scenes.”
For the first time ever, Ariana saw Jackaby smirk. “Yes, it is the kind of thing I’ve come to enjoy. I only wish my supply of ideas had been as endless as my supply of ink. My creativity started slipping. I hadn’’t published in years. That passion you spoke of – the drive to write, that was still there, but I needed something new, something fresh. And you volunteered to be just that. Your writing isn’t quite my style, but with a little help from the blood, it will get there… And then all that’s left is to put my name on it, of course.”
“Your name? But I’m the author,” she fumed.
“No, you’re an orphan. Your name is meaningless and will never amount to anything. I am a professional. People know who I am. People will mourn my loss and forever cherish my books. You…you will never be missed. Orphans never really are. That’s what makes them the easiest…”
He sat the candle on the ground and a face was illuminated next to a discarded, dusty old cap. Spencer… eyes closed and a deep gash dripping thick blood into a pan. Drip. Drip. Drip. Ariana had only moments to take in the agonizing sight. In the darkness, there was movement. Jackaby lunged at her, causing her to drop her candle. It rolled across the basement floor as Ariana quickly evaded his grasp. Off balance, she gripped the workbench. One hand fumbled through the shadows for the nearest weapon, and she drew a large butcherknife. She swung wildly in his direction, only knowing she had sliced him when he let loose a howl of pain. It was the first of his own blood Jackaby had spilled in his line of work.
He fell to the ground, and Ariana ran. Out of the basement, out of Jackaby’s home, and out of Canal forever. She ran further than any nightmare could ever chase her, taking only her bag of supplies and the heavy butcherknife with her.
When she finally did stop running, the agony and grief consuming her, there was only one thing she wanted to do. Unable to shed a tear, she slid her palm across the blade of the knife, dipped her pen in the beads of blood that formed there, and Ariana began to tell her story. Spencer’s story. A story more twisted than anything Jackaby could ever hope to write. Her words were her tears, her despair, her dream of being an author turned nightmare.
And this time, the words did not change.
Oh my, well, that turned out much longer than I intended for my first post, but I’m sure that’s something you’ll come to expect with my stories. What started as only the mental image of a girl shocking an audience by declaring her desire to be an author grew into something much larger and darker wanting to be told. Not sure how many times I told the Scribblers and others that I was “almost done”, only to have Ariana reply, “No, you’re not.”
PSA: No authors were harmed in the writing of this story.