BROTHERHOOD OF THE BOOK



BROTHERHOOD OF THE BOOK, by M.R. Timson

 

Page One, Chapter One, Volume 986

The year has turned, and the first page of a new volume has come again. And as the solar lamp rose over the spine of the world I spent it on the track towards the monastery, watching as the great dome and its twenty-four apses came into view. Blue then purple then the most garish red, the walls changed their hue before my eyes as the dawn broke the hold of night. The Brotherhood of the Book, high on Mount Codex, is to be my home. I could scarcely believe it as the cart bumped and jolted me along the winding path. Into the clouds we went, and all was like a dream until I disembarked. Then, as he placed my chest on the ground and climbed back into his seat, the cart driver turned to me and said: Devil worshippers, that’s what I hear. Course, he who pays the piper…

And with that he was off, whipping his poor nag into a canter.

I was met at the gates by a fellow scribe, Antonius Aretino. He has been here a year, he told me, adding it was hard work. I told him I did not fear work, only penury. In that case, he added, I might fear not. The Brotherhood pay well.

He took me on a tour, starting with the scriptorium itself. It is truly a marvel the work that goes on here! More than a hundred scribes occupy this great hall, all standing at their own lecterns, their quills moving with the utmost precision yet the most incredible speed. There are stacks of blank paper in wheeled carts to the left of each scribe and trays to their right wherein they place their completed leaves. Crouched figures dance and scurry along the lanes between desks, bringing in fresh paper, fresh ink, collecting the finished pages and delivering them to the next stage of the process. This mighty engine room is to be my daily work!

 

He led me on to other spaces, showing me the illuminators, the rubricators, and of course the binders. I admit to having found it quite overwhelming, and I paid little attention to the pleasures of the refectory, the sleeping quarters or the monastery gardens. He took me to a chapel, blue light filtering in through the stained glass, and told me that was where my induction must conclude. I asked, in wonderment, about when I might see inside the great dome? He shook his head. We are scribes, Andreas, he said. We are not monks. There are parts of this complex we may not enter. There are questions, he said, his eyes hidden under his cowl, that you and I are not permitted to ask.

 

Page Two, Chapter One, Volume 986

I wonder if I might never move my hand again. I have spent fifteen of this page’s thirty lines with a quill gripped in my aching digits. I can barely extend my fingers, my wrist is in such agony I feel as if must cry out. Upon meeting with Aretino at the refectory I found myself having to eat one-handed! I supped the pale soup with a spoon wobbling in my left hand, tearing the bread with my teeth. Aretino and his – my – colleagues found it most amusing.

It is demanding work, made all the more so by the dagger-sharp eyes of our overseer, Brother Mannus. He strides up and down the spaces between our lecterns, and when he finds something he dislikes he holds up his hand and shouts: Cease, scribe! Today it was I who was victim of his ire, although upon perusing my copy more closely he evidently found nothing wrong, and simply returned it to me with the admonishment that I was wasting time by having stopped. Others too, found his bulbous nose and sagging jowls intruding into their work. Some were not as fortunate as I, and Brother Mannus made sure the whole room knew when someone omitted a dot or slashed a serif. Today I was copying a simple prayer book, but I understand the scriptorium produces books of all kinds for patrons across the land. Occasionally, Aretino tells me, there is even poetry that crosses our desks. I wonder, however, if we scribes concentrate so much on the movements of our hands that we do not comprehend what we are writing. I often reach the end of a page and could not recite a single word to anyone who asked.

 

Page Four, Chapter One, Volume 986

I have been too tired to write in my journal these past few days. Our hours of work are long and the winter nights and freezing cold do not help. The scribes’ quarters are a large wooden bunkhouse set back from the main complex. We share not in the heat or the amenities of the brotherhood. I sometimes see the monks walking the grounds, their black robes trailing behind them, their long, tangled beards like creeping vines down their chests. They do not see us. Brother Mannus is the only monk who talks to us, and that is only so he may admonish us. To the rest of them we are invisible, inhabiting a world, as I am told they say, ‘beyond the binding’. I want to know more, to pass within the walls, to see inside the dome. Aretino told me it would do no good to dwell on such desires, that I would soon learn how fast the pages turn on the mountain. But later, back in my sleeping quarters, I found a scrap of vellum beneath my pillow on which was written: MEET ME AT THE CLIFFS ABOVE THE APPENDIX, LAST LINE OF SIXTH PAGE.

 

Page Seven, Chapter One, Volume 986

I have just come back from a most exciting meeting, and feel I must write my thoughts and recollections down now, so that by the time dawn rises they will be set, the ink of memory staining the paper of mind indelibly. I followed the directions given in the note – although I had to ask for help from one of my fellows to discover the right place. The location is a most wild one, out at the edge of the mountain’s north face, beyond the gardens and along a narrow, rocky path. The wind was so strong against my robe there were times I felt sure I might be lifted off the mountain and carried clean away, but I kept going, clutching at the jagged outthrusts of rock, until I saw him. There, silhouetted against the pale moon, a dark, hooded shape, thin as a featherless quill. He beckoned me over.

Scribe Andreas, he said as I approached. I was beginning to fear you would not come. Intrigued as I was by this mysterious personage, I was disappointed to see he wore the brown robes of a fellow scribe. You gave me this note? I said, and I held out the vellum to him. He took it, only to immediately release it to the howling winds that blew up from the sheer cliff face. No-one must know of this, he said. Then he pulled something out from under his cassock and held it out to me – a black robe, its cloth billowing like a sail, and with it a medallion, shaped like a tome opened to its centre pages. Wear these and you will pass freely beyond the binding. Do not attempt to go any farther, else you will be discovered. Do not stay for long either. The monks are clever, they will sense your strangeness.

Who are you? I asked, and why do you help me?

Brother scribe, he said, you are not the first. We serve the monks well, so it is only right we understand a little of their work. Report back to me what you discover at this same line, but as the chapter turns.

I asked him why he did not make use of the disguise himself, and he pulled back his cowl to reveal a bone-thin countenance and a crescent-shaped scar, running down from his right temple and ending in a cleft at his chin. My face is known, he said, and then he turned and began walking in the opposite way along the path. As he went I heard the sound of chanting, rising up from the mists beyond the precipice, and then a mighty crack, like lightning, though the sky was clear. What is this place? I called after him. Why is it called the Appendix?

In the cliffs below are many hundreds of cells, the stranger called back over the banshee wind. In each one lives a monk, a flagellant. The sound you hear is the sound of hundreds of flails ploughing hundreds of furrows into hundreds of backs. The Appendix comes after the end, and there is no return.

And with that, my mysterious friend left me.

 

Page Eight, Chapter One, Volume 986

I have stored the robe and medallion under my mattress in the sleeping hall. Now I must wait for a time to use them. Each scribe receives one blank page in each chapter, and mine is on the twentieth. This is just five days before the first chapter ends, and I must return my disguise to the stranger. Speaking of the stranger, I had expected to see him again, either in the refectory or in the sleeping hall. I asked Aretino if he had ever seen a scribe with such an unusual disfigurement, but he shook his head. I keep my eyes on the letters, my friend, he said.

Later on, something else interesting happened. Brother Mannus stood peering over my work for quite some time, and though such episodes invariably end with a loud denunciation of the efforts of whomsoever he is examining, this time he merely made a quiet, almost approving sound and shuffled away again, his ire directed elsewhere.

 

Page Twenty, Chapter One, Volume 986

Today was the day! And such strangeness I have seen I can barely describe. I rose early, before the sun had lit upon the page, having told my fellow scribes I would spend my day of leisure hiking. But once out of the sleeping hall I crept through the darkened grounds and into the gardens – the only place where monks and scribes might both freely be. There I donned my disguise and waited until the day broke and the black-robed brothers began to emerge from their stony hideaway. I waited till a number were out among the bare branches and snowy flowerbeds, then I pulled my hood over my head and walked out. The medallion bumping against my chest, I crossed the arched threshold and passed into the darkness beyond the binding.

I was conscious of the sound my sandals made on the bare stone floor as I walked down the entrance passageway. The candles at the end of the hall threw long, flickering shadows onto the yellowed walls, and I almost lost my nerve as I turned a corner and came face to face with two monks, striding directly towards me in close formation. I hesitated, but just a little, before I carried on. They slipped right past me, their whispered voices carrying nothing of substance to my hooded ears. I stopped for a moment, breathing hard. They had not suspected a thing.

I headed in the direction of the dome, and I soon found myself looking upon its wonders from the inside. The enormous chamber was made up of a hundred or more concentric circles, descending towards the centre. Ringed around each circle stood a hundred or more monks, each clutching an open book and repeating the same mysterious chanting. The tongue in which they spoke was unknown to me, but the sound of so many voices reverberating off the walls was overwhelming. It was like a million whispers in my head. Around the edges of the topmost circle were the twenty-four apses, each one terminating in a stone altar – more monks, censers, incense, chalices, prayers. And above it all the dome itself – as magnificent as a second sky. My attention was drawn to a shaft of sunlight, beamed from a small hole at the centre of the dome and shooting down to a larger hole in the floor. Where it leads I know not, but I realised the monks were directing their prayers towards it. The whole chamber, it seemed, was at one with the same enigmatic ceremony.

There were no other monks standing as I was, all were celebrants engaged in their tasks without respite. Three other passageways exited the dome and I was sorely tempted to try one. But I could sense eyes upon me and knew I dared not risk discovery. Stealing one last look at the magnificence of the dome, I turned and left the way I came.

 

Page One, Chapter Two, Volume 986

Today has been a most strange day. Where to begin? I worked the long lines of my page as always, but as I turned to leave Brother Mannus stopped me. Andreas, he called as I filed out among the other scribes. Come with me, I have someone who wishes to meet you.

I turned back, the confusion clear on my face. Yes Andreas, Brother Mannus said. I am speaking to you, and you would be wise not to tarry.

He motioned me follow, his bony finger curling round itself and his yellowy eyes locked upon me as if he were casting some spell. Then, confident in my obedience, he turned on his heels and strode away towards the north exit.

I thought for a moment about running away. For surely, I reasoned, they have discovered my trespassing and are keen to punish me. My puny heart pounded in my ears. I looked around, at the south exit and the disappearing line of scribes. I might make it out of the complex, but the mountain would likely undo me. Brother Mannus had disappeared through the doorway. I steeled myself, and raced to follow.

Through darkened passages we went, Brother Mannus not looking back once to check on my subservience, not saying a word to encourage or reassure me. I followed him down narrow ways until we came to a sloping corridor that corkscrewed down into the earth. At the bottom we entered a large hallway with an arched roof and three doors leading off. Brother Mannus led me to the door on the right and rapped his knuckles on the dark wood.

Enter, came a voice from within, and Brother Mannus pushed the door open. I was hit by a front of warm air, racing to escape into the chilled hallway. Go inside, Brother Mannus said, and be sure you bow to the Grand Master.

The Grand Master! The words filled my heart with a kind of thrilled dread! I doubled over, seeing only the red and white flagstones of this new chamber, preparing to confess and plead a light punishment – thinking of the fearful scar of my mysterious friend, of the mighty crack of the flagellants’ whips.

Rise, Andreas, I heard a deep voice say. Your deference is not required here. I summon you to offer my congratulations.

The drum of my heart missed a beat, then began to relax. Congratulations? I did not understand. Slowly I unbent myself and stood up straight. Ahead of me, sitting behind a wide desk, was a thin, bald man with red beard so long it trailed below his waist and out of sight. He had sharp eyes and was dressed in a jet black robe with red piping. But he was smiling. Do not be afraid Andreas, he said. Come closer, take a seat.

I stepped between the bulging bookcases that lined either side of the chamber, afraid to even make a noise in this man’s presence, and sat on the chair opposite his throne.

My name is Vizeer, I am the Grand Master of this order. I have heard much about you Andreas. Brother Mannus speaks highly of your work.

Of that I was astonished, I could not imagine Brother Mannus speaking highly of anything, but the grand master was sincere.

I am sure you have many questions about our endeavours here, he continued, and I promise you in time all questions will be answered. That time is almost at hand, but for now I must ask for your patience, and for some special help. We have need of your skills, Andreas, on a most challenging project.

I am here to serve you grand master, I sputtered, my words barely coherent.

We must serve each other Andreas. We are all brothers here. There is another order of scribes that lives within the monastery, did you know that?

I shook my head. I had never heard even the hint of such a thing.

Yes, the monks call them scribe superiors, but such labels are most tiresome. All that you need to know is that the work these scribes do is of crucial importance. The work of the regular scriptorium pays our way in the world, but without these special scribes and their endeavours, the Brotherhood of the Book would simply not exist at all. It is hard work, Andreas, much harder than your current position, but vital to everything we do. And there are some benefits. You would have your own chamber, within the binding, and a servant who would tend to your needs. Your pay would triple. The only restriction would be that we could not permit you to leave the monastery again until your work is complete. But I promise you, this tome is nearing its end. What say you, Andreas? Will you help us?

I did not give the question any thought. How could I refuse?

 

Page Two, Chapter Two, Volume 986

Strangeness and bad tidings. I write this in the flickering candlelight of my new quarters. They are lavish – a real bed, a writing desk, the warmth that comes from being within the binding – but I grow fearful.

I was not permitted to return to the sleeping hall of the regular scribes. My servant, an old peasant named Grimani, fetched my belongings for me. He did not know, of course, about the monk’s robe and pendant stashed under my mattress. Anxiety gnawed at me and gnaws still. What if it is discovered? But that is as nothing compared with the other events of this page. Where to start? I must order my thoughts.

I rose early, on the fourth line, my sleep troubled despite the comfort of the bed. I had missed my appointment with the scarred scribe who helped me sneak into the dome. I wondered and worried about the consequences. At the first word of the sixth line, Grimani came to my door and told me to follow him. He took me down another long, anonymous hallway before reaching a winding staircase. Up and up we climbed, until I was quite breathless. Then, with the stairs still stretching away, he led me through a side door and into a small chamber. There were wide windows all around the room and a view of the distant mountains some way below. We were in the high tower, and in the centre of the room was a lectern, a stack of pages, and a most curious book open to be copied.

The grand master stood by the eastern window, hands folded in the sleeves of his robe. Andreas, he said, new page to you. Now, please, take your position.

I moved over to the lectern. Squinting at the yellowed vellum of the book, I tried to make sense of its dense lines of characters. The symbols were unknown to me.

What language is this? I said.

For the first time since I had met him, the smile left the grand master’s lips. It matters not Andreas. What matters is this: that you produce a faithful copy of the pages presented to you – every curve, dot, slash and serif. It must be perfect Andreas: an impeccable reproduction of what you see.

I grasped the edges of the lectern and ran my eyes over the strange script. It was senseless to me, but there was a regularity to it, an alphabet of some kind.

Can you do it? The grand master said.

I nodded.

He left me then, and I was alone until the fifteenth page, when Grimani arrived with water, bread and fruit. Lunch! This was indeed a privilege. But I wondered about my other ‘scribe superiors’ – were they all locked away in their private rooms? Oh yes, said Grimani. You’re the special ones. Whatever it is they’ve got you doing, they want it done well. I’m here for your every need, master.

And do you know a scribe with a scar running down his face? I asked him. Is he a scribe superior?

The servant screwed up his eyes and turned away, as if I’d threatened him with physical assault. Master Darema. Bad business.

I asked him what he meant, and he told me. The scar-faced monk had thrown himself from the cliffs overhanging the appendix, not two pages ago at the turning of the second chapter.

 

Page Five, Chapter Two, Volume 986

My dreams are plagued with the most vivid terrors. In them, I see Darema falling from the cliffs, and as his body plunges through the clouds I become one with him. The wind rakes us and drags at our robes, and then we slow, passing the cells of the flagellants, and I watch as men plough their ripped backs with barbed whips, their blood running in deep grooves beneath their feet and coursing in rivers down into the mountain. I lock eyes with one of them, and I see the face of the grand master, leering with some perverse joy, and I see horns erupting from his head and a great fiery hand, clawed and blooded, emerging from the now-shattered cliff face, reaching for me.

I wake with tears in my eyes. I cannot rest. My work suffers.

 

Page Six, Chapter Two, Volume 986

The grand master came to see me today. Is there something wrong, Andreas? He said. Your work, though impeccable, has slowed.

It is true, my sleep has become so impaired that I feel I must reduce my pace or risk error. Since the latter has been ruled unacceptable, I must choose the former.

I’m afraid we cannot spare you, Andreas, there are timelines we are working to that do not permit it. But you must try and rest, when you can.

I nodded, and he began to walk over to the door. He stopped behind my lectern, no doubt appraising my work, and I could feel his presence behind me. We are brothers, Andreas. If you are troubled, you must speak with me.

I nodded again, but I did not speak. How could I talk to him of Darema? How could I explain my knowledge of him, or put into words the rising fear that strains my heart?

 

Page Nine, Chapter Two, Volume 986

For two pages now I have felt a presence in my chamber while I sleep, something dark standing over me, paralysing me with fear. It is no good. I must ask Grimani if I might move to a vacant room.

 

Page Ten, Chapter Two, Volume 986

There are no vacant rooms, this I know, because I am in the only chamber that has ever been vacated here. I am in Darema’s room. He told me this himself.

I woke just as the page turned and there he was, standing by the window, a sepulchral glow around his robes, waves and waves of freezing air radiating from him. He turned to me, and I thought my heart would stop. Then I saw his lips move beneath his hood and a disembodied voice said: Come with me!

I hid under my sheets and wept.

 

Page Eleven, Chapter Two, Volume 986

I went with him. He would not be denied a second time. Now I know the source of my nightmares and they are not within me. They are within the monastery.

He drifted out of the door of my bedchamber, and again I was the follower, blindly walking in the wake of one more knowledgeable than me. He took me along passages lit only by his own otherworldly glow. I shuffled along, holding my hands against the wall to steady myself, fear pounding in my chest, shivering with cold and dread.

He took me back to the great hallway with the three doors. I saw the door to the grand master’s chamber to the right, but he walked straight on, towards the door at the end. I heard the lock turning and the door swung wide with not a touch of a human hand. Come, Andreas, he said, there is something you must see.

Into the gushing dark we went, descending a black staircase, and at the bottom an iron door that unbolted itself at the coming of my ghostly companion. Inward the door creaked, and Darema stepped aside. Come, he said, in that drear voice. Look upon your grand master.

There, at the centre of a great black wheel, stood Vizeer, his head thrown back and his face illuminated by a shaft of moonlight. I realised where we were – we were under the great dome! I looked around, from sluices at intervals all around the wheel came great currents of blood, coursing around a spiral of channels to the centre, where it pooled at Vizeer’s feet and lapped at his ankles. Vizeer was holding a book and chanting, his hands held up in supplication, and when he lowered his head I saw the terrible truth of him – horns, and eyes that burned fire. The source of my terrors.

 

Page Twelve, Chapter Two, Volume 986

Darema has told me what I must do, and I feel I have no choice but to obey. The task is simple: for whatever reason, my faithful copying of his alien text is paramount to Vizeer’s demonic plans. Darema has told me all I need do to stop him is to introduce one single mistake, and for Vizeer not to notice. I must break my vow as a scribe, I must wilfully make an error.

 

Page Fifteen, Chapter Two, Volume 986

It is trickier than it seems, to make a mistake, but one that escapes the eye. There are certain characters of this script that are alike and could easily be substituted, but not knowing how these characters interact to create words and phrases I am blind as to how obvious my substitutions will be. Nevertheless, the tome nears its end. Its leaves are few. I must act.

 

Page Sixteen, Chapter Two, Volume 986

I have done it! A simple missed cross-hatch on the penultimate page, enough to transform one symbol into another but to create what I am quite certain from what I have seen of this strange tongue is a real word. Vizeer himself came to collect these last leaves. We are short of time, Andreas, he said, but I thank you.

He took a cursory look over my efforts, nodding and stroking the edges of his beard. Then he turned back to me, and I could not shake the image of the true him – the horns, the fire, the blood. You have done a great service to us, he said. Soon all will be revealed. Your reward will be due.

Good luck, I said to him, and I could not resist a wry smile. Almost bowing, he left. I returned to my chamber and packed my things. All around me, the passages were crowded with monks, some kind of excitement, they were all deserting their posts.

A perfect time to slip out unnoticed.

 

Page Seventeen, Chapter Two, Volume 986

What have I done? I slept on the mountainside in a cleft in the rock, furs and stolen sheets tight against the cold, only to be awakened in the early pages by a mighty thunder. Except it wasn’t thunder. As I rose from my sleep and peered over the outcrop I saw what it was: the monastery, torn asunder and aflame, great slabs of stone still sailing through the air and landing with dolorous thuds upon the earth. The grounds are a firestorm, there are terrible screams carrying to me across the wind. Oh dread hells! Did they uncover my treachery? Was my error corrected?

 

Page Eighteen, Chapter Two, Volume 986

I have not stopped to sleep. I continued my descent as soon as I saw the flames, like a mighty balled fist, reaching ever higher into the sky. It is still there, a pillar of flame coursing up through the clouds. Ash and smoke is heavy in the air – day differs little to night. I am on the high hills, off the mountain. There are bodies and bits of bodies everywhere I look.

And I can deny it no longer: this disaster is the consequence of my betrayal. Whatever it was the monks were trying to do, it was not as Darema showed me. This is the result of their failure.

 

Page Twenty, Chapter Two, Volume 986

Today he found me, Darema, or whatever I am to call him now. I had hidden myself behind a limestone crag, covering my bedroll with moss and branches, closing my eyes and trying to sleep. But he woke me by calling my name – softly, like a brother. I opened my eyes and there he was, kneeling over me in his tattered black robe, horns long and twisted, eyes like flames.

Andreas, he whispered, I have been searching for you, to offer my thanks. Your quill prevented the monks from imprisoning me in the body of that fool, Vizeer. Now a new volume has begun, and the old ones are to be burned. I am in need of someone of your talents. Who else could I trust to record the history of my rule on the mortal plane?

I nodded, and he reached a hand to me, a hand wreathed in fire.

_____________________________________________

MR Timson has previously had short fiction published by Swords & Sorcery Magazine and Sorcerous Signals.


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