HAVE BOOK - WILL TRAVEL
The endless winding corridors, carved into the lower part of the fortress, opened into large voids that functioned as storage rooms. They were badly lit by small, high windows, and damp, and Max had equipped himself with a lamp that shed vivid light around it. Some of the rooms contained old furniture; another was filled to the high ceiling with parts of armatures. The room that Max liked best looked like a huge junkyard, filled with boxes, old bags and packages, each of which contained items of interest, and was so huge that Max could have spent weeks exploring it.
As he was about to enter the room, one day, a noise coming from within startled him. A light flickered from the direction of the noise and quickly disappeared, leaving him to wonder whether it had all been a dream. He turned off his lamp, took off his shoes to avoid making a sound, and walked silently in. A light came from the far end of the room, behind a pile of boxes. It was faint but clear and Max walked quickly toward it. Peering behind the boxes he gaped in surprise. A young girl sat on a large wedding-chest, reading a book.
“Hey,” said Max out loud, taking a step forward. He was so close to her that he could have touched her.
The girl jumped to her feet, closing the book and hugging it to her chest. “You scared me!” she complained.
But, wait! We’re moving too fast. Let’s go back to where it all started…
The carriage came to a halt as close as possible to the gate of Martuk Fortress and Maximilian – Max to his friends – opened the door and jumped unceremoniously down. The trip hadn’t been a long one, but traveling with Gremilda made it seem to last for an eternity. Gremilda wasn’t a friend of Max’s. She was a middle-aged governess and was in charge of his education, manners and general behavior, a duty placed on her by Max’s mother and one which she meant to discharge without half measures. Max had known her for ever, but what he had accepted as an unavoidable nuisance as a child no longer awed him, now that he was a teenager.
This was a strange, new summer for Max, one in which he still felt playful like the child he had been only yesterday, but also one in which he had become self-conscious as his voice broke, his clothes were now too small for his height, and many new and mysterious tingling sensations in his body demanded his attention. The transition from a child to a youth had taken Max by surprise and he felt still uncertain how to deal with his new self. He was confused as he had never been before and paid far less attention to his surrounding than his education called for. He gazed briefly around and then thoughtlessly strolled from the carriage toward the gate.
“Maximilian!” gasped Gremilda. “Stop where you are,” she added imperiously.
“Oh, Gremi,” Max answered with exasperation, without looking back. “What now?”
Gremilda stepped down the carriageway, walking majestically. She was tall and thin, dressed in black as befitting her status of widow, with features that seemed cut in wood. She approached Max and took hold of his arm, squeezing it until it hurt.
“You will behave yourself, you hear me?” she hissed. “In a moment your uncle will be here to greet us and you won’t do anything to shame us.”
The sound of an opening gate drew their attention. Max’s uncle, Commander Yohan, walked quickly toward them and Gremilda attempted the closest thing to a smile that she could manage. She then curtsied, drawing out a sneer from Max.
Max wasn’t particularly fond of his uncle; the last time he had met his mother’s brother he had been seven years old, but he remembered him as someone who kept his distance, not at all a warm personality like his mother’s. During Yohan’s last visit to his parents’ residence he had barely spoken twice with Max, and then only briefly and formally. Max had often wondered how a brother and a sister could be so different – his mother was a warm, caring soul – but then perhaps Yohan’s manners were a result of the grave responsibility that rested on his shoulders. His uncle held the position of commander of Martuk Fortress, the huge outpost, built by man over the centuries, which blocked the only large gap in the mountains that surrounded the civilized regions and was the only point of contact with the savage world outside. A heavy responsibility, indeed.
“Maximilian,” said Yohan, standing before him, smiling, “you’ve grown.”
“You too, Uncle,” retorted Max merrily, “but sideways.”
“Maximilian!” said Gremilda, gasping once again indignantly.
“Never mind,” said Yohan, raising a hand and chuckling with pleasure, “this young man has grown cheeky,” he observed, and then addressing Max he asked, “How old are you now, twelve or so?”
“Thirteen and a half, Uncle,” said Max. His uncle was turning out to be chummier than he remembered him and he enjoyed seeing Gremilda seething with fury.
“Thirteen is almost a man,” said Yohan. “You have grown up, indeed, and you’re handsome as they come. Here, give me your hand.” Max put out his right hand and his uncle gave it a manly handshake. “Welcome,” he said. “I hope you’ll have a good stay. Unfortunately, I won’t have much time to spend with you, but I’ll see you often. How’s your mother?” he asked, changing the subject.
“Mother is good. She’s sad, though. You know about her good friend…”
“Yes, her friend is dying, isn’t she? That’s why she asked me to keep you for the summer. She doesn’t know when she’ll be back, and with your father so busy...”
Max’s father was an astronomy professor. He always stayed up late at night watching the stars, and taught during the day, so Max almost never saw him. His mother used to tell him that he was no use around the house, and never available when needed, a truth that Max had learned in the cradle.
“As I said,” Yohan continued, gazing at Gremilda and becoming serious, “I won’t have much time to look after Maximilian…”
“Oh, don’t you worry, Commander Yohan. Maximilian won’t be any trouble. I’ll see to it that he behaves himself and you won’t even know that he is here. He has a lot of catching up to do with his studies before schools reopen and will be quite busy himself.”
“Good, good,” said Yohan. “Now come in and you’ll be shown your quarters. Welcome to Martuk Fortress. The place doesn’t offer many diversions, I’m afraid, but I’m sure that you’ll find the accommodation to be quite convenient. I’ll see you later.”
Yohan nodded, then walked briskly away. One of the soldiers that had accompanied him directed Max’s carriage to a separate entrance and another one signaled them to follow him into the fortress.
Max looked at the huge walls and then at Gremilda, and shuddered. The fact that his destiny, at least for the foreseeable future, was to be cooped up with her and his books in this admittedly boring hole, only then caught up with him. He resolved to do something about it.
“Wipe out that vapid smile from your lips,” Gremilda hissed between clenched teeth, “and let’s move.”
Max’s smile deepened. He was going to have fun that summer, no matter what, and even though she didn’t know it yet, Gremilda would play a big part in his plans.