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BOOK ONE: FATE
ANNO DOMINI 782
In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram.
[In the beginning, God created Heaven and Earth.]
FOLKWARD SMILED, WATCHING THE INK bite into the parchment. A new copy of the Holy Writ, a fundament waiting to be filled with wonder.
The old monk looked up from the manuscript and exchanged glances with Hemming, his genial companion, who was eagerly smoothing parchment with his broad hands. Folkward blew softly on his forefinger, and the novice dutifully stretched across the table to pass a fresh candle. Simple signs for the simple life engendered by vows of silence.
Folkward's smile rarely wavered these days. As the candle flickered into life, he carefully slid his goose quill into the phial and bent his head back to his task. It was the precision that he relished — two columns to a page, a continuous flow, letter on letter, word on word, until he reached the neatly ruled margins. He scratched large, clear, beautiful letters, each one a joyful spark of creation. There were frequent pauses, dabs of fresh ink, time to stand back and savour. Time to enjoy the intimacy, the sense of surrender that came with inking His word.
If pressed, he would confess to a modicum of pride in his work. His eyesight was undimmed, his fingers still nimble — and his penmanship was renowned, or so he was told. Kings and potentates across Christendom asked for Folkward by name; and for these talents, he was grateful. They were worth a touch of backache. He did worry a little about how his shoulders hunched — he seemed to slouch even when standing tall or singing full-throated at Mass — but considered the matter a trifle in the bigger scheme of things. He was a vessel for the divine; such was the price of allowing His Word to direct his quill.
Hemming busied himself arranging the manuscript's pages into gatherings of eight and pricking the pages with a small knife to mark the highest numbered page, shaping each folio. The silence was amiable, each monk content in the halo of his candles. Folkward glided across the page as the spirit of God moved over the waters.
Terra autem erat inanis et vacua et tenebrae super faciem abyssi et spiritus Dei ferebatur super aquas.
At the edge of his hearing, there was a stirring toot of a hunting horn, although the Saxon boar-chasers with their long spears and sallow dogs often simply herded the slowest and most wobbly old sow in sight. The hogs were certainly at their fattest now.
Folkward's stomach growled in anticipation. In just a few weeks, sides of delicious bacon would be hung in the rafters, making a virtue of the smoke that thickened the air. The first crop of onions, leeks, and celery would soon be hauled from the garden. Next year, there would be fruit from the orchard. Better still, bees had settled in the thatch, which would mean all the riches of honey and an end to the pungent aroma of tallow candles — burnt mutton fat and fresh pigshit made an unholy, cloying alliance. The September harvest would soon be matched by the woodland bounty of beechnuts, acorns, chestnuts, and other fruits of the forest. No wonder his belly seemed rounder with every passing year.
The forests were the most bounteous portion of the Saxon lands, showing the sheer detail of His creation. Folkward found it fascinating. Take the oak tree, for instance. It was like a Book of Genesis unto itself, providing the ink the monks curled across the page in such intricate fashion. A wasp had once gnawed into the wood to lay its eggs, and then, in self-defence, the tree formed a gall around this rude intrusion, circular and hard-skinned, bulbous like a crab apple. It was Hemming's job to crush the oak galls in vinegar, thicken them with gum arabic, then add iron salts to colour the acid and get the mixture ready for the labour ahead. You couldn't help but wonder at the majesty of creation, revealed and replicated even in nature's minutiae. It was sobering to think that the Lord provided everything, even the means to copy Sacred Scripture. Folkward pondered for a moment, then realized that the Lord had even provided Hemming. He chuckled at the thought and arched his back, feeling his spine and shoulder blades crack.
He looked back to Hemming, now rustling around the book chests. The novice was an ungainly fellow, not quite comfortable in his own skin, but Folkward loved him all the more dearly for it. Hemming wore the ground-length tunic of undyed wool given to every novice, belted, but still so loose and ranging he was prone to sweeping every room he entered. His sleeves, three quarter length on most monks, hung all the way to his wrist. A Dane by birth, Hemming bathed at the well every Saturday, as was the custom with his people. Folkward had named him Hemming the Heaven-Scent when he first arrived although, of course, he never uttered the phrase aloud.
The Dane went barefoot, in penance for whatever mischief brought him to the abbey five years before. Folkward heard from some huntsmen that Hemming had stolen fruit as a young man, but he hadn't pried; his vows required him to avoid unnecessary speech and gossiping about a man's past transgressions fell squarely in that category. Even in his habit, the young man would smile at every Saxon woman that passed, but in all other matters, he was a model convert, a quick learner, and a fond favourite of all the monks. Folkward trusted the Lord would forgive the flirtation as a foible.
Dixitque Deus: Fiat lux. Et facta est lux. Et vidit Deus lucem quod esset bona: et divisit lucem a tenebras.
Hemming hovered nearby until Folkward finished the verse, then delivered some welcome refreshment: a wooden cup, brimful of mead. The blessed bees — God's cattle indeed! It was probably time to take a short break. His stomach could use the exercise. Folkward made the sign of the cross, nodded his head in thanks, and then beckoned his companion outside, down the short corridor to the courtyard. He stretched a little and then sat down next to the well, surveying their own parcel of creation, brimming with life and dappled by the evening sun. By the grace of King Karolus, Folkward and his fellow missionaries had brought light where there once was only pagan darkness. That was why they were here, after all, at the very edges of the kingdom. A Royal Commission, to bring the Saxons before God now that the Saxon War had brought them to heel. He peered into the trees past the stables but couldn't see any sign of the hunters. They were lazier than the swine.
My cup runneth over. He grinned as he sipped his drink, trying not to let it spill. The old monk had come a long way from his days as an earnest young scholar in York. This place was a delight, especially when it was quiet. When the brethren fell into silent prayer, the bees buzzed, the wood pigeons cooed, and you could take pleasure in all its subtle variety.
The monks were never idle. Ora et labora — to pray and work. That was the life of a monk. Benjamin, Artrebanus, and Genoald would educate the young while Folkward and Hemming copied manuscripts, illuminated the missal, and transcribed the gospels. Others cultivated the soil, guided the plough, planted vines, bound iron supports to the oak shaft of the watermill. Genoald was soon to fire glass for the chapel in his charcoal furnace.
They had built the monastery with a practiced eye — seeking out the proper site for their new monastic home, making sure that it stood close to the Saxon tribes and that it had fertile soil and the benefit of a coursing stream. And then, with a prayer, trees had been felled, a well was dug, and buildings began. They blanketed the sturdy beams and planks with willow branches and then daubed the walls with clay, straw, and dung. Through their toil, they heralded the Kingdom of Christ, whose holiness redeemed the bodies as well as the souls of His creatures. The monk's songs of praise, echoing into the ancient glades, had tamed the ancient Saxon forest. His song, from Matins to Compline, was the channel by which they spoke to God, its rhythmic beauty an act of homage. The monks were practicing for the glorious day when they would stand in His presence.
The monastery was visible proof that progress had been made, and not just at the point of the king's swords. Over five years of holy toil and perhaps heaven-sent good luck, the brethren had built churches, ordained priests, and made so many converts that, after two years, hardly an idolater could be found in all the lands between the Weser and the Elbe. If the king's favour was true, there would soon be a new bishop in the nearby town of Bremen, the first diocese in this part of the world. Brother Willehad's cathedral already had the first beams in place.
The horn blasted again, closer this time, although still lost in the trees. Birds startled into the sky, shrieking in caustic reply to the martial sound. Folkward drained his cup hurriedly and set it down on the grass. He paced back, round through the chapel and library then back to his desk. Perhaps it wasn't hunters after all. Perhaps it was the king's outriders, attending to their safety. That was not a welcome thought. Folkward found himself easily irritated when his peace and quiet was disturbed. That was the problem with an abundance of contemplation, it made the mind restless. He reached over to the Master Bible, his source, and traced his finger down the second column, searching almost to the end of the leaf, until he came to the words:
Produxitque Dominus Deus de humo omne lignum pulchrum visu, et ad vescendum suave lignum etiam vitae in medio paradise, lignumque scientiae boni et mali
The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil ... of course, the tree and its fruits were not themselves evil, because everything that God created was good. It was disobedience of Adam and Eve that caused the disorder in Creation, that saw mankind thrown out of Paradise. Just like the disobedience of the Saxons threatened disorder now, threatened to upset this little patch of perfection, his home now as much as theirs. He frowned, his face flushing with annoyance.
Folkward dearly hoped the king's army had no cause to ride out. The monks had been forced to flee west before, more than once. But after the last uprising, he had been convinced the troubles were over, especially as the rebel leader had escaped north. A warrior called Widukind or Widuking, or some such, although it was clearly a nom de guerre. The Saxons told him it meant child of the wood. Willehad said he was just a story to frighten Frankish children.
The surrounding woodland suddenly felt more ominous, and it flashed through the monk's mind — and not for the first time — that he was the intruding wasp. Karolus was a great king, fourteen years on the throne of the Franks, and most of those at war with his Saxon neighbours. He was already proclaimed a new Constantine, equal in might and magnificence to the old Emperors of Rome. But he was a stubborn king too. He preached with a tongue of iron that grew more severe with each rebellion. Folkward had debated the campaign often with Willehad.
If you used evil means to achieve the peace of God, were you a good man? Faith required free will, not compulsion by fear and bloodshed. And thus the cycle was doomed to repeat itself. He knew that old Eahlwine, the new master of the palace school, thought the persecution of the tribes was too harsh. They had studied together at York and still exchanged letters. Eahlwine reasoned that, if the king trusted Northumbrians to establish his church in foreign lands, perhaps together they could persuade him to practice leniency, to gladden hearts and minds rather than alienate them. Folkward didn't reply. Karolus might ask for his books, but he certainly didn't ask for his counsel.
Nor was the old monk under the illusion that the heathens were impressed by him — either his age or supposed wisdom, or the fact that he had the gall to enlighten their ignorance with his sermons. The Saxons had their own sly learning; nothing like the lessons of Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine of course, but their own sources of cunning and revelation all the same. Their chief idol, the archfiend Woden, was an elusive figure, lurking at the fringes of the forest, wandering widely in its shadows.
To a pagan, the idea that there was only one True God was baffling. Folkward had made it a point to understand their thinking — you couldn't hope for conversions without a little insight and understanding — and found it simplistic but practical. When famine or disease was rife, why bet on just one God when you can gamble on the intervention of any number of them? The crucial thing he'd realized was that the Saxons had lots of these demons. There was probably a god of pigs out there, rooting around for sacred acorns. Folkward knew most of them, by name at least, all the better to affect their abjuration. That was the real battle, for the newly baptised tribes would just add Christ to the list of spirits and elves to be appeased each day then think no more of it. Folkward knew how they thought — baptise now, take the Frankish linens and jewels, and carry on as before. Greedy creatures. Perhaps he should write to Eahlwine with his thoughts. The distraction might help calm his nerves.
He opened the wattle shutters and scanned the treetops from the window. There was no smoke. In his experience, rebellions always began with smoke. Perhaps it was just the huntsman's horn after all, rather than anything more disturbing. Nothing more worrisome than that. There had been two years of peace after all. Folkward tried to smile and told himself he worried easily in his old age, that the ache in his back shortened his temper. He was certain that God guided and protected their efforts, that He ensured no harm would come to the brethren. There were plenty of proofs. Willehad himself had survived a blow from a heathen sword, the blade diverted by a box of relics suspended around his neck at the last moment. And had not Bishop Wynfrith cut down Thunaer's Oak and done so with impunity? At the time, at least. He later found martyrdom in Frisia, so perhaps the heathen gods were just biding their time. Still, if Woden were out there, in the forest, he'd hardly blow a horn to signal his arrival, would he?
There was a commotion somewhere in the courtyard, raised voices out by the refectory. Unusual, so soon after Vespers, when the brethren were mostly at study, but not unheard of. There were plenty of pupils eager to receive wisdom, perhaps even more so now after the harvest had been collected. The words of Benedict himself decreed, "Let all guests who come to the monastery be entertained like Christ himself, because he will say 'I was a stranger and you took me in.'" Folkward thought about attending to the visitors himself but found his legs strangely reluctant to move.
Hemming coughed lightly to attract Folkward's attention from the window, hoping to avoid startling the older monk. Such a kind fellow, Folkward thought, realizing that his sense of panic was all too obvious. The Dane then nodded toward the door, putting two fingers to his head and taking hold of a hank of his tonsured hair, signalling that the abbot was on his way. The abbot! Of course, that would explain everything. The horns were announcing his arrival, clearing the forest paths. Folkward's grin relaxed back across his face. A visit from Bremen would inevitably involve good wine. The noise outside the scriptorium was louder now, an unmistakable flurry of footsteps, punctuated by the heavy thud of the staff of office. The footsteps stopped outside the door and, for a moment, silence returned. Folkward tidied his quills with a stifled sigh and reached to seal the ink, but his hand froze mid-action.
There was a woman in the room.
She stood in the now-open door, silhouetted against the gloaming beyond the candleflame. Her head was partly covered by a hood made of black lambskin, a dark cloud above the swirling storm of the cloak. A large leather pouch hung on her velvet belt, dangling all kinds of mystifying charms. Her feet were covered by hairy calfskin shoes with metal knobs at the toe, her hands covered by white, supple gloves. Folkward stared at her, stunned by the turn of events.
When she spoke, the woman's voice was sing-song, soothing, a lullaby sung to a restless child.
"Blakkr prestr, hvíta Kristr, rauda Thorr."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The All Father Paradox"
Copyright © 2018 Ian Stuart Sharpe.
Excerpted by permission of Outland Entertainment.
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