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THE MONASTERY OF ERA MINA
AUCHINMURN ISLE, WEST COAST OF SCOTLAND
The book the old monk was illuminating began with these words:
THIS Book is about the nature of beasts. Gaze upon these pages at your peril,
The old monk yawned, his chin dropped to his chest, and his eyes fluttered shut. The quill dropped from his fingers, leaving a trail of ink like tiny teardrops across the folio. He was working on one of the book’s later pages, a miniature of a majestic griffin with talons clutching an imposing capital G. As the old monk nodded off, the griffin leaped from its place at the corner of the page and darted across the parchment. In its haste to flee, the beast brushed its coarse wings across the old monk’s fingers.
The monk’s eyes snapped open. In an instant, he thumped his gnarled fist onto the griffin’s slashing tail, pinning the beast to the page. He glared at it. The griffin snorted angrily and scratched its talons deep into the thin vellum of the page. The monk shook off his exhaustion and focused his mind, and in a rush of color and light the griffin was once again gripping the G at the top of the page.
Glancing behind him, the old monk spotted the bare feet of his young apprentice poking out from under the wooden frame that held the drying skins to make parchment.
Something will have to be done, the monk thought.
When he was sure the image was settled on the page, the old monk crouched to retrieve his quill. He was angry with himself. He would have to be punished for this terrible lapse in concentration and go without his evening meal. He patted his soft, round belly. He’d survive the loss.
But the boy. What to do about the boy now, given what he’d witnessed? That loss would hurt. The old monk did not relish having to train another apprentice. He had neither the strength nor the inclination for such a task. Not only that, but this boy had already demonstrated a great deal of skill as a parchment maker, and was a natural at knowing how long to soak the skins in lime and how to carefully clean and scrape them. And, at such a young age, he was already an elegant calligrapher and a brilliant alchemist with inks. Between the two of them these past months, they’d almost completed the final pages for The Book of Beasts. The boy and his talents would be sorely missed.
The boy sensed that the old monk was debating his future. He could hear the weight of the monk’s ideas in his head, like a drumming deep inside his mind. He associated the sound with the monk because at its loudest, when the monk was concentrating hardest, the drumming was deep and full and round, much like the monk himself.
The boy’s mother was the only other person the boy could sense in his head: a feeling not unwanted, although often peculiar. Not because he missed her. Far from it. His mother and his brothers and sisters still lived in the village outside the monastery gates. But his mother’s echo in his head had helped him escape her wrath, warranted or not, many times. Quickly the boy lifted his pestle and mortar and finished crushing the iron salts and acorns for his next batch of ink.
The old monk straightened himself against his desk. What should he do? What if he were to fall asleep again while illuminating, only the next time his dozing was too sound? He didn’t dare think about the consequences of such a terrible slip. Only once before had he let such a thing happen, with tragic results. He’d been a young man and had not had the benefit of his training yet. In his nightmares, he could still hear the apprentice’s screams. Oh, and there had been so much blood.
No, something would definitely have to be done about the boy.
He stared at his apprentice across the workroom now in much the same manner as he had stared down the griffin.
But the boy was courageous and smart. He knew this was an important moment in his short life. He loved everything about the monastery and didn’t want to leave. He was genuinely fond of the old monk, with whom he’d worked since his father had given him to the service of the monks in return for grazing rights on a prime piece of church land outside the village.
The boy knew how much such a trade was worth to his family. It was worth everything to him, too. This was a time when men, women, and children believed in miracles and magic with equal faith. It was a time when kings and queens fought for their crowns with armadas and armies whose allegiance they bought with land and crops and even bigger armies. And it was a time when hope and happiness had everything to do with where you were born and who was protecting you.
Yes, indeed, the boy knew better than anything else that he had to stay with the old monk and remain part of this ancient holy order. So he did the only thing he knew how to do in the circumstances. He stood up and stared directly back at the old monk without flinching and with an equal measure of concentration.
The monk glared.
The boy’s heart was pounding in his chest. The drumming in his skull was so loud, it felt as if a vise was tightening across his ears. He was sure his head was going to burst. His nose started to bleed, dripping into the mortar he was gripping in his hands. Behind the monk, the boy could see the griffin’s tail thumping against the page. But still he held his gaze.
After what seemed—to the boy, anyway—to be forever, the vise around his skull loosened, the pulsing of the old monk’s thoughts stopped, and the boy thought he heard a sigh inside his head. The monk’s shoulders drooped, and he turned away. The boy let out his breath and wiped his sleeve across his nose.
Ah, thought the monk, I have neither the strength nor the inclination to challenge this boy’s fortitude. Something else will have to be done to ensure that he honors the monastery’s secrets.
He turned away, his focus back on the beast.
With great relief, the boy returned his attention to the pot and his mixtures. When he’d finished creating the ink, he filled the monk’s inkwell and stored the rest for another day. Then he turned to the goatskin stretched across the rack. Gently the boy ran the tips of his fingers across the surface, making sure the skin was drying smooth and thin enough to absorb the inks. He looked again at the old monk, his body draped across his tall desk, his quill dipping in and out of the inkwell. The monk’s concentration was so intense, the boy knew nothing would shift him until the final touches had been put to the page.
Soon the light was fading from the room, and the old monk could feel his mind drifting again. After cleaning the tip of his quill, he set it inside his leather pouch along with his other tools. Then he sealed the inkwell with a wax plug before covering the page he was illustrating with two thin layers of vellum. Lifting the pages, he set them on a rack inside the cabinet next to his desk, weighing down the corners with polished stones. The pages he’d been working on for the past month were similarly laid out across the cabinet’s broad shelves. Tomorrow, he’d begin the process of illuminating the final beast, the most terrifying of them all—the grendel.
The monk locked the cabinet, dropping the key into the pocket of his robes. Before closing the shutters, he peered out through the wide slits in the thick stone walls, stunned for a moment by the sight of an owl and one of its young lifting off from a nearby tree. A sign, the old monk thought. An omen, to be sure. Of good, he trusted.
“Time for prayers, and then perhaps you and I should discuss the matter lingering before us.”
The boy echoed his master’s ritual, cleaning his tools, wrapping them in their soft leather pouches, and setting them on his workbench.
The old monk dampened the peat in the hearth and pulled on his fur cloak. Grabbing his cap and scarf from the floor, the boy tied his leather soles onto his feet and followed his master to the heavy oak door.
“Solon, you would do well to forget what you believe you saw earlier. It was only a trick of your youthful imagination.”
The boy stepped in front of the old monk and held the door for him.
“Beg pardon, master, but weren’t it really a trick of yours?”