This is a prequel to the Sam and Laura series (NOT Sam and Laura from Critical Role…totally different characters invented before I started watching and both girls!). The first and second instalments are here. They detail the story of the bookshop where Sam works and which occasionally traps people as ghosts within its walls before mapping Sam and Laura’s growing relationship and their further adventures… This is also a piece of fan-fic… If you haven’t watched Critical Role – go watch it!
It was a slow Sunday at the bookshop. The rain outside was keeping most people locked gloomily or cosily indoors. Mark, the bookshop ghost, was ensconced in ‘his’ reading corner upstairs and had ignored Sam’s friendly greeting on entry. Today, disappointingly, was not one of the rare days where he would deign to string a few sentences together between turning the leaves of a book. Customerless and ghostless, Sam set to reorganising the annuals which lined the topmost shelves of the shop.
She was teetering precariously on the top step of the rickety 3 step ladder, muttering under her breath and desperately trying to snag a Rupert annual that Colin had double stacked on top and quite out of place when a voice interrupted her chuntering. She hadn’t heard the door. Some people were surprisingly stealthy when they entered bookshops, treating them like the hallowed ground of libraries and thinking they deserved a respectful silence.
‘Just a moment,’ she cried cheerfully, ‘I’m just trying to get this one down. It’s now or never I’m afraid.’
She could have sworn that the book moved an inch or two forward into her hand but that was surely some strange book hallucination brought on by the dust clouds. With a small start as the book seemed to positively jump into her hand, she flipped the dodgy middle step backwards and slipped off the ladder. The bookshelf only inches behind her caught her fall and she slid ungracefully to the ground her back wedged up against the saving tomes.
‘Fraulein, are you alright?’ asked a slightly Germanic voice.
‘Oh yes, yes,’ she replied, ever cheerful, ‘happens all the time. Good job we’re so packed really!’
She still hadn’t turned around but now, catching her breath and squeezing herself out from between the steps and bookcase, she turned towards the door. With a slight shock, she saw a scruffy ginger haired man with a beard that looked like, at some point, he’d been shaved with something as little suited to the task as a great sword. Multiple layers of rags hung off him and she doubted she’d ever seen anyone quite as dirty before. Behind him, there was a smaller shape with its hand in the window around one of the jewelled spiders in the Halloween display.
‘Oh, sorry, the spiders are just decoration, not for sale,’ said Sam and the small arm snapped back into place and a face appeared behind the wild-haired man. There was something not quite right about the face. It was in shadow and she couldn’t be certain but it looked like the bottom half was covered by the broken off smile of a porcelain doll and the hood seemed to be hiding something either suspiciously like horns or very very large ears. ‘Ah well,’ thought Sam, ‘You get all sorts in a bookshop.’ After all, body modification could get pretty extreme.
‘Give me a shout if you need a hand with anything,’ she said as she folded up the ladder. ‘If it’s your first time, there’s an upstairs. There’s also a basement. It’s not open to customers, but if you’re looking for something specific, I can check the stocks for you.’
‘Thank you,’ came the precise German accents, ‘I am looking for books,’ he hesitated, ‘books on time if you have any.’
‘Time… um, well we have the timepiece catalogues.’
‘Timepiece…I have not heard of these books,’ he said with an excited tone, ‘do they sell pieces of time?’
‘Um, no, not really,’ said Sam, with a light lilt of amiable confusion. ‘They’re catalogues of watches and clocks and things like that.’
‘No,’ he said disappointed. ‘This is not what I am looking for. Have you anything on time itself. On how it works. On how to change it. On those who have tried to change it?’ His phrases were punctuated by uncertain gaps but his tone was fervid and his eyes intense.
‘One of those,’ thought Sam.
‘Um, well… there might be something in the physics section upstairs. It’s in the corner directly above where you are now. There’s also some science fiction about time travel…’
‘Time travel,’ he interrupted, excited. ‘Are these guides to time travel?’
‘Not really. Um, they’re more like stories.’
‘Still, they may be useful.’
‘Yep. Are you a time traveller then?’ asked Sam hesitantly, trying to pinpoint the exact variety of weird that had wondered in. You really did get all sorts in Todmorden.
‘Me,’ he said with exaggerated innocence. ‘No, no, no. This is all for academic interest. I do not wish to change time or to travel in it.’
‘But you could,’ said a raspy voice from behind him. The smaller figured peered round behind him. ‘Ca…in can do anything. He’s very clever.’
‘I’m sure,’ said Sam. ‘Sure. Um, he’d certainly be the first.’
‘Do you know this,’ interrupted the man. ‘Where do you know this from?’
‘Um, just, you know, reality and stuff,’ said Sam.
Cain looked disappointed. ‘Well, we will look at your selection of books upstairs. Thank you.’
‘My pleasure, give me a shout if you need me.’
As they turned to go upstairs, Sam noticed a spider sat on the man’s shoulder…one of the probably hundreds that inhabited the shop who delighted in jumping out on unwary customers when they felt so inclined.
Um, sorry, Cain…’ she called.
The man turned with interrogative eyebrow. ‘Fraulein? Is there something wrong?’
‘Um, no. Well, that depends how you feel about spiders really. You have one on your shoulder. It happens, we get them a lot.’
The man jerked his head round to look at his shoulder and then back at Sam. ‘Stealthy,’ he hissed in the spider’s direction in what seemed to be withering accents.
‘Here, let me get that for you,’ said Sam with concern for the spider’s probable fate. Holding out her hand, one finger extended, she said coaxingly, ‘Come on, little friend, you’ve had your fun.’
The spider after a moment’s hesitation begrudgingly stalked onto her finger and she carefully carried it outside before gently placing him on the bush growing to one side of the door.
‘He’ll be back tomorrow you know. They’re like homing pigeons! Sorry about that.’
The stranger smiled at her. ‘It is no problem, Fraulein. I rather like spiders…although I prefer cats.’
‘Yeah, um, I think that’s quite a normal preference,’ stuttered Sam into the fulsome silence which followed his pronouncement. He nodded in acknowledgement and the strange pair disappeared upstairs. Shaking her head, she sat in her corner seat behind the fold down desk and got out her book but she had no time to get immersed in ‘The Seventh Bride’ and its hedgehog related shenanigans. From upstairs, she heard footsteps. One set slow and deliberate, pausing often in the accustomed rhythm of the bookshop aficionado, the other quick-paced and appearing to go all round the shop. She would swear that they seemed to go up as well as though someone were climbing the steps…or even the shelves. Suddenly, there was a crash and what Sam recognised as the sound of falling.
Hurrying upstairs, she called out, ‘Are you alright!?’ but received no reply. She was sure she heard low Germanic tones though and caught a few odd words. ‘…careful…they do not…dangerous here…our kind…’
Rounding the corner into the upstairs room with a certain degree of bustle in her demeanour if not her speed, she came onto a sight of some small chaos. Someone had obviously been using the ladder (although it was surprisingly distantly located from the chaotic scene…it must have flown backwards…) and from the newly dishevelled appearance of what she now saw to be a girl, she presumed that the younger one had fallen off and taken a stack of detective fiction and the vase balancing on top with her.
‘Oh dear, are you alright?’ Sam asked, hurrying forwards.
The wild-haired man stepped in her way. ‘She’s fine. Clumsy. We will tidy it.’ She couldn’t but notice that he’d somehow attracted another spider, which perched in the shadow of his collar. Oh well, he didn’t appear to mind.
‘Thank you, um, are you sure she’s alright?’
The younger woman poked her head round from behind him adjusting what Sam realised most definitely was a porcelain doll’s face as she did. Sam was sure for a second that the skin beneath was a decidedly unhealthy green…but bookshop light is often deceptive. ‘I’m alright,’ came the girl’s raspy voice behind her.
‘Good,’ said Sam. ‘Is there anything I can help you with while I’m up here?’
‘Did you know that you have a ghost in this shop?’ came the surprising reply and Sam met Mark’s eyes. They gave nothing away but a raised eyebrow suggested that the situation was as unusual for him as it was for her.
‘Yes, I am aware. And you can see him too?’
‘Yes, of course. Wi…we from where I am from, we can see ghosts.’
‘Right, it must be an interesting place. Well, I’ll let you get back to it.’
‘Wait,’ said Cain. ‘Can you show me where are your books of time.’
‘Of course,’ said Sam. On their knees together, they rooted through the boxes of physics and philosophy books before Sam went and picked out all the sci-fi that she knew on time travel. It didn’t seem to be what he was looking for but he cradled an old edition of Wells The Time Machine lovingly. ‘I will have this, if I may. What is the cost of the book?’
‘It’s written in the front.’
‘I am not familiar with your money. Will one gold coin be enough?’
‘Gold… um, let me ring my boss.’
‘Alright, this not your shop?’
‘No, I just work here. I am the book guardian on Wednesday and Sundays,’ she smiled.
‘Right. You will have to call the owners. They live close, I presume, so they will soon reply. You will not have any books on magic in this shop? There is no magic here, I think, it does not exist?’
‘I mean, that’s a pretty big question. Hard not to believe in magic when your bookshop makes people into ghosts but… either way, we have a magic and esoterica section.’
‘Why did not tell me this. I must see it.’
With a slightly strained smile, Sam replied, ‘Well, you didn’t ask.’
‘No, how foolish of me. I will still take this book on time travel but take me to your magic section. Do you sell spells?’
‘Um, we have books of ‘spells’’
‘Books? Whole books?’
‘Yeah. Um, sure.’
As they turned around from the sci-fi bookcase to go downstairs, there was another almighty crash. Sam looked somewhat wildly around but could see no new pile of books. The detective fiction had been perilously and disorderedly replaced (Sam’s mind wasted a second on the tired sigh of someone with a great deal of alphabetizing to do) and there were no other signs of destruction. There was also no sign of the strange girl. Sam looked up at Cain with a little surprise.
‘She is very clumsy,’ said Cain in a flat tone, ‘I apologise.’
‘Well, let’s see if she’s alright.’ She could have sworn that he took some wire out of his pocket as he walked somewhat irritatingly slowly down the stairs and spoke into it like a microphone. If she’d believed what she was seeing, she’d have sworn that he was whispering into it with a note of fierce warning. The only words she caught were ‘coming…move.’
After negotiating the stairs, Sam looked around for the flailing limbs and book mountains the crash had led her to expect but there was nothing out of order. Nothing beyond the normal signs of books which had been looked through by a somewhat careless hand.
‘I did say that the cellar was not open to customers,’ Sam turned to Cain. Her worry was predominantly focused on the welfare of the girl but it couldn’t be denied that the threat of lawsuits lurked in the distressed recesses of her brain.
‘Yes, my apologies. My companion is…curious.’
Sam had no reply to this and thought with increasing worry of the lack of sounds from below.
‘We better see if she is alright. Downstairs is…a little untidy and little precarious.’
Inevitably the lightbulb which hung suspended over the rickety stairs remained obdurately dark. Changing lightbulbs while perilously suspending oneself from a shaky banister was never at the top of anyone’s task list.
‘Careful,’ said Sam but as she descended she wasn’t met with the darkness she expected. The sun must have broken through the clouds or something, offering a little more light from above than she was used to in ‘sunny’ Todmorden.
As she shuffled past the book piles and bags decorating the top of the stairs, she heard a faint call ‘Caleb?’ and her eyes narrowed in suspicion. Using a false name for a bookshop trip was a new one.
‘We’re coming,’ she called out. Frantic scuffling met her ears. Sneaking her hand round behind a bookcase, she reached for the light. She had stopped somewhat hastily at the bottom of the stairs and the wild man walked into the back of her with a muffled curse. Mutually mumbled and awkward apologies ensued, each trying to move their limbs out of the orbit of the other before a glance a mutual understanding passed between them. The recognition of a fellow non-toucher, while a moment of solidarity, unfortunately made nothing less awkward as the realisation of the other’s distress made each engage in a more robust but less effective attempt to disengage.
Sam abruptly stepped away, somehow managing to pin his hand to the wall with her elbow but carrying on as if nothing had happened. Freedom from the nightmare of inefficient awkwardness was too precious to waste time on apology.
Nothing was immediately obvious from the bottom of the stairs. From behind her, a voice said, ‘To the right, Fraulein, the spider tells me we will find her there.’
‘The spider told you? You speak to spiders?’ she said unable to withhold every disbelief.
‘Yes…um, as you do, no?’
‘They don’t normally talk back.’
Sam turned and followed his directions with a shrug. When they turned into the right vault of the cellar, a truly apocalyptic scene met their eyes. Sam caught herself standing open mouthed. At least 4 bookcases had fallen. She didn’t dare to think how many books would need sorting…let alone how many bookcases would need mending. The only fword that came to mind and seemed to fit the scene was ‘avalanche’. An avalanche of books had flooded the cellar and from the middle there arose a thin arm which, now she had leisure to inspect it, she realised was enclosed in an exceptionally creepy skin tone glove. And in the glove-encased hand there was clutched a single small object…it looked like a button.
It took close to 20 minutes to dig the girl out. Caleb/Cain’s spirit may have been willing but his flesh was weak and she watched with something akin to despair as he lifted a book at a time from the pile. Finally, they made enough headway to say that they were beginning to unearth the girl, the lower half of her body was mostly free. Just as Sam was feeling optimistic, she raised a book, saw a flash of green and felt a sharp pain in her hand.
‘Did you…did you bite me!?’ she said with astonishment, looking down at her hand. Caleb/Cain froze.
‘She is disorientated. She doesn’t what she is doing. She must have a concussion.’
‘WE are trying to help you,’ he said exasperated, with a tone of warning.
‘My face…’ came the anxious hissed reply.
‘Ah,’ said the man, turning to look with a speculative eye at Sam who had already turned back to the book pile.
‘Look, if you could not bite me…alright?’ and proceeded to remove the rest of her books, Caleb/Cain working quietly and stiffly by her side. As soon as most of the lifting was done, he pushed in front of her as though to shield the girl and pulled her from the ground, before swinging her up into his arms.
‘Did you hurt yourself?’ he said with an anxious glance.
‘No,’ came the raspy reply. ‘A little. Nothing serious.’ And then the smile fell, in two pieces, to the floor and the face of the girl was suddenly quite clear. She was green. She also had the kind of mouth nightmares were made of and Sam quietly wondered what the bite pattern on her hand would look like. Certainly not like a human had bit her…which might be easier or more difficult to explain. Sam’s gaze flicked past, pretending perhaps unsuccessfully that she had noticed nothing amiss.
The two visitors stiffened before a frantic whispered conversation ensued. Sam thought detachedly that it was probably meant to be secret but the acoustics of the cellar were something neither of the two conspirators had taken into account.
‘We have to kill her,’ was the girl’s choice. ‘She knows too much.’
‘We can’t kill her,’ said Caleb. ‘She is a guardian of the books. She spoke so herself. She has not harmed us.’
‘Perhaps, I can help settle this,’ said Sam, curiously (given the circumstances) smiling. I know no more and no less than I knew before. This is…an in-between place. I have seen many things. I do not care what you are or even why you are here. Would you like to see the esoterica section now?’
The odd pair looked at each other, understanding seeming to pass between them before the man turned and nodding, protectively tucking the girl’s face back into his shoulder. Sam turned to go back up the stairs, a restrained grimace spasming across her face as she cast a last look at the chaos of the book massacre behind her. She stood back to let them pass so that she could go back and turn off all the lights. The man stopped in front of her and with a tentative and clearly strained smile, motioned to the girl who now stood behind him, a cloak drawn high over her head leaving her face in shadow. ‘I will look at these books of magic. My…life partner will perhaps look at something else if you have a recommendation. These things do not interest her.’
Sam nodded, the curious smile crossing her face again. ‘Of course. How old is your … life partner?’ she asked with an emphasis on the last words reflecting a sort of restrained glee, a sparkle in her eye.
‘Um, in this place 18 is the age of adulthood, yes?’ he stuttered.
‘It is,’ said Sam calmly.
‘Well, she is 18.’
‘You look young for your age,’ she addressed the girl behind him.
‘She is very youthful,’ he interjected.
‘Yes… well, there’s an art section by the door. It is full of pretty things,’ she was sure that the eyes got wider in the shadow of the hooded cloak, ‘…and it is quite in sight of my desk so as to avoid any other accidents…It seems that someone has been rolling natural ones.’
The man looked at her puzzled. ‘What is the meaning of this ‘natural one?’
Sam chewed her bottom lip to restrain a smirk. ‘Um, it is a phrase here. It means to be unlucky.’ Ducking her head slightly to focus on the girl, she said, ‘If you wish to see anything, you need only ask.’
She gestured for them to ascend the stairs and followed them up having flicked off all the lights and turned her back with a pang on the scene of destruction. She indicated the art section by the door with a casual hand and led him round to esoterica. As soon as he saw the selection, his concentration was fixed as he poured enraptured through the books, mumbling delightedly under his breath.
Sam sat back in her corner, eased out her book and kept an occasional on the girl looking perfunctorily at the children’s section directly in front of Sam by the front door. It took quite a while before wild-haired man was done and he turned delighted with a pile of books as tall as his companion to the desk.
‘How much are these books,’ he asked. ‘You did not go to fetch your employer to enquire of the prices.’
‘No, well, I realised there was no need. As I said before the price is the front of the book. I will say that 10 pounds is worth one gold piece. How much are they all together?’
Painstaking calculation began and after 10 minutes of murmuring numbers under his breath, the man choked out ‘165 gold pieces’ with obvious pleasure and a somewhat crafty look in his eye.
‘I can pay that,’ came a raspy voice from far closer than Sam had expected. The girl had come forward with the hood pulled high over her face so that it remained in shadow.
‘There is no need,’ said the man. ‘I have 166 gold pieces.’
‘Save them, I have over a 1000.’
He allowed the girl to pay but counted each piece himself onto the desk.
‘…160, 161, 162, 163, 164, 165.’ Sam reopened the eyes which had been lulled closed by the rhythmic counting of the coins.
‘Would you like a bag?’ she asked automatically.
‘No, thank you, we have our own bag.’ He pulled from his back a hot pink bag which seemed to have an unusually high capacity… ‘Thank you for your help. You have a fine bookshop.’
‘My pleasure,’ smiled Sam.
‘Time to go,’ said the man and the odd pair headed toward the door.
‘One second,’ said Sam, that curious smile returning to her face. ‘Caleb, Nott… it was a pleasure to meet you.’
They both stopped, backs tense. ‘You know us,’ said the girl.
‘In a way,’ said Sam before turning to Caleb. ‘There is great magic in books…they do things, I cannot understand. You will understand me when I say thought that they can let you see…things you cannot see. They may take you places, to whole different worlds… Perhaps they are also the key to your search. If they can move you between worlds…perhaps they are the key to the doors of time as well.’
‘Perhaps,’ said Caleb, half suspiciously, half wonderingly.
Sam smiled, ‘It was a pleasure to meet you. Goodbye.Good luck,’ and she turned away.
She heard the door open and close and looked out through the gap between the books to see the odd pair wandering down the street. Nott’s gestures were animated and she held up in one hand the hard-won button and in the other a an orange jewel spider. Sam smiled.