Short Story – The Scroll

Story prompt: The story’s protagonist is female and a tax collector. A barn plays a significant part in the story. The story is set in a library in ancient times. The story is about aging.

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She rambled down the aisles of the library, randomly looking at scrolls and tablets. She wasn’t expected here and the librarians occasionally scowled in her direction. They weren’t fond of women — educated women were considered to be particularly troublesome. And they were even less fond of tax collectors. Since  she was both, she knew they watched her more closely, and with more animosity than any of the other patrons. And since she was no longer young, she could not distract them with her beauty as she once had. She was still striking although her once jet black hair was streaked with silver and soft lines had appeared around her eyes. The advantage from her perspective was that she was no longer intimidated by their glares. She knew they couldn’t hurt her and they could not stop her. In spite of her gender. It was not a great time to be a woman, although with enough money and power one could still exercise some freedom in Alexandria.

The manuscript she sought was old. Older than anyone here and older than the parents or grandparents of anyone here. The author had been dead for centuries, but she remembered seeing the scroll when she had visited with her father. It seemed like a lifetime ago. She was young then and just starting to realize the power of her looks on those around her. Her father was proud to have a daughter so eager to learn and so pretty.  She still missed her father even though he had been gone for more than 10 years.

She dragged her thoughts back to her task. She tried to remember the general area in which he found the scroll. What was the angle to the librarian’s station? How many rows? How many tables? Based on her memory of that day, she calculated that she had to be pretty close, but how would she recognize the document? Just then she noticed one of the librarians moving an armful of scripts quickly out of the room as if he didn’t want to be seen. He seemed to be checking to see if he was being watched so she looked quickly away before he noticed her gaze. After he left the room she furtively moved down the aisle to see where he had gone. She followed at a distance as he went through two other rooms and then down a set of stairs. She crept down the stairs not knowing what was at the bottom and not wanting him to know she was following. Just as she reached the bottom and peeked over the balustrade, he lifted a trap door with one arm and held it until he had stepped into the hole and replaced the door above his head. She knew she didn’t dare follow him down so she looked for a place to hide and waited until he came back out. Once he came up she knew she wouldn’t have a lot of  time to explore the trap door before he returned with another armful, so she moved quickly. Peering down through the trap door she saw more stairs leading to a tunnel and decided to risk it. She descended quickly and ran down the torchlit tunnel as soundlessly as possible until she found another door. Holding her breath, she eased the door open to peek in and saw a chamber with more doors.  Since no one seemed to be around she slipped into the chamber and was approaching the first door when she heard voices behind her. She darted through the door and closed it noiselessly behind her hoping they would not follow her. Luckily they were distracted by their conversation and didn’t notice as she dove behind a partition, when they entered through the same door. She waited while they discussed the movement of the works from the library to these chambers, holding her breath when they gestured at the urns in her direction. She held back a sneeze and then stopped breathing altogether when they paused.

“Did you just hear something?” the younger of the two men asked.

“No. These chambers will make you crazy if you allow your imagination free rein. There are echoes from the stable above us and the grain in the bins will shift suddenly. Just ignore it. There’s no one else here,” replied the elder man.

As the men were silent again and then left taking the torch with them. She waited in the dark as long as she could.  She could hear water dripping and she heard the echoes of the hooves of the animals above. Then she started to feel for the door she had glimpsed on the opposite end of the room. She found the handle and slowly opened the door a crack  – Light! She decided to go through and soon found herself at the foot of a ladder leading to an opening in the ceiling. As she climbed she realized she was climbing into daylight although still inside a building of some sort. She poked her head through the aperture and looked around – seeing only the animals she finished her climb and looked around the barn as she straightened out her clothing and dusted herself off. Then as casually as she could she walked out the door of the barn and into the street. Now that she knew where the tunnels led, she could come back another time and explore the contents.

When she was a block away from the barn she heard the cries and turned with the crowd to face the library. Fire! The library was on fire! People were running from the building screaming. As the realization came to her, she turned and headed for home. She would never see the manuscript now, so she resolved to recreate as much of it as she could from memory.

Many years later as she lay dying she passed what she had recorded to her daughter with the words, “Never grow too old for adventure.”

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With thanks for the story prompt to The Speculative Fiction Muse http://www.katfeete.net/writing/specfic.php

And to my writing partners, Mary C Sutton and D Anthony Brown danthonybrown.me for the support and the laughs.

What do you think? Did I honor the spirit or the letter of the writing prompt? Enter your thoughts in comments below.

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