An exclusive excerpt of The Scribe by Antonio Garrido, a historical mystery featuring a head-strong fugitive heroine, a medieval mystery, and secret societies (available December 17, 2013).
The year is 799, and King Charlemagne awaits coronation as the Holy Roman emperor. But in the town of Würzburg, the young, willful Theresa dreams only of following in the footsteps of her scholarly father — a quiet man who taught her the forbidden pleasures of reading and writing. Though it was unthinkable for a medieval woman to pursue a career as a craftsperson, headstrong Theresa convinces the parchment-makers’ guild to test her. If she passes, it means access to her beloved manuscripts and nothing less than true independence. But as she treats the skins before an audience of jeering workmen, unimaginable tragedy strikes — tearing apart Theresa’s family and setting in motion a cascade of mysteries that Theresa must solve if she hopes to stay alive and save her family.
A fugitive in the wilderness, Theresa is forced to rely on her bravery, her uncommon education, and the compassion of strangers. When she encounters Alcuin of York, a wise and influential monk with close ties to Charlemagne, she believes her luck might have finally changed. But the biggest secret lies between Charlemagne and her father. Theresa moves ever closer to the truth, bent on reuniting with her beloved father, only to discover that her family’s troubles are inextricably entwined with nothing less than the fate of an empire.
When Gorgias arrived at the scriptorium, he realized with horror that he had left his bag in the parchment-maker’s workshop. He cursed his stupidity, but he was comforted by the fact that he had hid the parchment that he was working on in a secret compartment inside the bag. He was certain that the man who had attacked him knew the incalculable value of the parchment and had been after it. If he had not taken this extra precaution, his assailant would now have his hands on a document more valuable than even he probably knew. However, the assailant had stolen a draft from out of his bag that contained some of the most delicate passages, and it would cause Gorgias a significant delay.
He looked at his arm and saw blood had soaked through the bandage that Zeno had made. Using his healthy hand he undid the dressing and rested his wounded limb on a table. He tried to move his fingers, but they would hardly bend. The wound was still bleeding, so he tightened the stitches that kept the cut from opening, but the pain made him give up. He could feel his raw flesh palpitating in time with his racing heart. Worried, he asked a servant to call the physician again. While he waited he lay back in his chair and reflected on all that had happened.
The creaking of the door roused Gorgias from his thoughts. The same servant reappeared and asked for permission to enter. With him was the surgeon, visibly annoyed.
“Save me, lord, from scholars,” he grumbled. “They think themselves so learned, yet at the slightest discomfort they moan like old women at a wake.” the physician brought a lamp over to Gorgias’s wounded arm.
“I can hardly move my fingers and it won’t stop bleeding,” Gorgias said, showing him the cut.
The surgeon examined the limb with the same scrutiny a butcher might examine a chicken he was about to dismember. Its stitching had nearly come completely undone. “Dear God! What have you been doing? Writing out the bible in Greek? You should be grateful if I don’t have to amputate.”
Gorgias did not answer. The physician rummaged around in his workbag. “Well, I’m be damned! I’m out of knotgrass. Do you have the powders I prescribed for you here?”
“I left them in the workshop. I’m send someone to collect them later.”
“As you please, but I must warn you—your other wounds do not concern me, but this arm… if you don’t look after it, in one week, it will not be fit to feed to the pigs. And if you lose the arm, you can bet that you will lose your life. Now I’m going to strengthen the stitching to stop the hemorrhage. It will hurt.”
Gorgias grimaced, not just from the pain but also because he sensed the dire truth in what the physician said. “But how can a surface wound—”
“Whether you like it or not, that’s how it is. It is not just king’s evil and pestilence that kills people. In fact the cemeteries are stuffed with healthy people who croaked because of minor cuts and scrapes: a slight fever, some strange spasms… and farewell to them and their suffering. Perhaps you don’t know Galen’s methods, but I have seen enough people die to know who the likely candidates are months before they go to the grave.”
Having finished the dressing, the little man gathered up his implements and put them untidily in his bag. Gorgias ordered the servant to leave the scriptorium and wait outside before he said to the physician, “One moment, please. I need you to do me a favor.”
“If it’s in my power…”
Gorgias made sure the servant was out of earshot.
“The thing is, I would rather the count did not hear about this. I mean, the severity of my injury. I’m working on a codex, a document that he has a special interest in, and no doubt he will be displeased if he learned that the job were to be delayed.”
“Well, I don’t see that you have any other option.You will not be able to hold a pen in that hand for at least three weeks. And that’s if it doesn’t worsen. Since it is the count who is paying my fee, you will agree that I should not lie to him.”
“But I am not asking you to lie, just to keep quiet. As for your fee…”
Gorgias put his left hand in his shirt pocket and pulled out some coins.
“It is more than the count will pay you,” he added. The physician took the coins and examined them closely. His eyes flashed with greed. He kissed them and put them away among his belongings. then, without a word, he walked off toward the exit.
At the door he stopped and turned toward Gorgias.
“Rest and allow the wound to heal. Health is lost at a gallop, but it returns at walking pace. if you see abscesses or cysts, send notice to me immediately.”
“Don’t worry, I will follow your advice. And now, if you don’t mind, send the servant in.”
The physician nodded and said good-bye with a wink. When the servant came into the scriptorium, Gorgias looked him up and down. He was a scrawny, beardless young man, with a dimwitted, ungainly look about him. “I need you to run over to the parchment-makers’ workshop and ask my daughter for the remedy that the physician prescribed for me. She will know what to do. But first, alert the count that I’m waiting for him in the scriptorium.
“But, sir, the count is still resting,” he stammered.
“Then wake him!” Gorgias shouted. “Tell him it’surgent.”
The servant drew back, nodding his head. When he left, he closed the door behind him, and Gorgias could hear his footsteps as he rushed away.
Gorgias looked around the scriptorium and saw that everything in the room was damp. The flames from the lamps barely lit the benches they rested on, giving the room a dreamlike appearance. Only a narrow window protected by solid bars provided some weak light for the gigantic wooden lectern, where there was a jumbled collection of codices, inkwells, pens and styluses, intermingling with awls, scrapers and blotters. The room had another lectern and, in stark contrast, it was completely bare. On the north wall, a sturdy cabinet flanked by two lamps housed the most valuable codices, which had chains running through the rings on their spines to secure them to the wall. on the lower shelves, separate from the rest, there were psalters for communal use, beside both books of the bible in Aramaic. on the rest of the shelves, dozens of unbound volumes stacked on top of missives, epistolaries, and cartularies of various kinds competed for space with the polyptychs and the censuses that recorded accounts and transactions.
He was still thinking about that morning’s attack when the door slowly creaked open and the light of a torch blinded him. When the servant moved aside, a strange, squat figure stood silhouetted against the torchlight. After a moment, Gorgias heard a faltering voice from the doorway. “Tell me, Gorgias—what is this emergency that ails us so?”
At that moment a low, sustained growl interrupted.
Gorgias recognized one of Wilfred’s dogs clenching its jaw and advancing toward him, with the other hound close behind. but they were retrained by harnesses that Gorgias saw tighten as they pulled along the familiar but strange contraption that, screeched along on its crude wooden wheels. Hearing their master command them to stop, the dogs lay down and the cart came to a standstill.
Gorgias could see Wilfred’s grotesque face cocked awkwardly to one side. The man let go of the reins and held his hands out to the dogs, who rushed over to lick them.
“Every day I find it harder to handle these devils,”said Wilfred, his voice choked with emotion, “but the lord knows that without them, I would live like a dry old olive tree.” Despite the years that had gone by, Gorgias was still shocked by the extraordinary appearance of the count.
For as long as he’d known him, Wilfred had been a prisoner of that wheeled device—where he’d slept, ate, and emptied his bowels ever since both his legs were amputated as a boy.
Gorgias bowed in greeting.
“Dispense with the formalities and tell me—what has happened?”
The scribe looked from side to side. He had been so anxious to speak with the count, and now he did not know where to start. At that moment a dog moved and the contraption suddenly rolled along. One of the wheels was squeaking and Gorgias went down on his knees to examine it as he tried to find the right words.
“It’s one of the rivets,” Gorgias said. “It must have come out with all the jolting. The boards are misaligned and could come off. You would do well to take the chair to the carpenter.”
“I hope you haven’t woken me to examine my cart.”
When Gorgias lifted his hand apologetically, Wilfred saw the bulky, bloody bandage wrapped around it.
“Good heavens! What have you done to your arm?”
“Oh, it’s nothing! A small incident,” he lied. “On the way to the workshops some poor wretch gave me a scratch or two. They fetched the physician and he insisted on dressing it, but you know these quacks, they’re are worried they won’t get paid unless they wrap you in bandages.”
“True, but tell me: Are you able to move your hand?”
“With some difficulty. but a little work will loosen it up.”
“So what was the emergency?”
“Allow me to sit down. It’s about the codex. It’s not progressing as quickly as I would have hoped.”
“Well, aliquando bonus dormitat Deux. It is not a question of going quickly, but of finishing on time. Tell me, what has caused the delay? You haven’t told me anything about it,” he said, trying to conceal his annoyance.
“To be honest I didn’t wish to concern you. I thought I could make do with the pens I have, but I have sharpened them so much I can barely make the ink flow.”
“I fail to understand. You have dozens of quills.”
“Yes, but not of goose feather. And as you know, there are no geese left in Würzburg.”
“Then continue with the ones that you have, I don’t see the issue.”
“The problem lies with the flow. The ink descends too rapidly, and this could cause leaks that would ruin the entire document. Remember that I am using unborn calf ’s vellum. The surface is so soft that any mistake handling the pen would have irreparable consequences.”
“Then why don’t you just use another type of parchment?”
“Not possible. At least, not for your purposes.”
Wilfred shifted in his seat. “So what do you propose?”
“My idea is to thicken the ink. Using the right binding agent, I could ensure that it flows more slowly, while maintaining the required glide. I could do it in a couple of weeks, I think.”
“Do what you must, but if you value your head, make sure the codex is ready by the agreed day.”
“I have already begun the preparations, don’t worry.”
“Very well. And since I’m here, I would like to take a look at the parchment. If you would be so kind as to bring it to me.”
Gorgias clenched his teeth. He did not want to explain that he faced a delay because the attacker had stolen a valuable copy and the original was tucked away in the bag that he had left behind in the workshop.
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible.”
“Excuse me? What do you mean it’s not possible?”
“I don’t have it here. I left it in Korne’s workshop.”
“And what in hell’s name is it doing there, at the risk that anyone could discover it?” roared the count. The dogs fidgeted restlessly.
“I’m sorry, Father. I know I should have consulted you, but late last night I noticed that one of the pages was starting to peel. I don’t know the cause, but when it happens it is vital that the problem is dealt with immediately. I needed an acid that Korne uses, and knowing how distrustful he is, I thought that it would be best to take the codex there, rather than ask him for the acid.
At any rate, aside from Theresa, no one at the workshop can read, and one more parchment among the hundreds they have there would not attract anyone’s attention.”
“I don’t know… that all seems reasonable, but I don’tunderstand why you are here instead of at the workshop applying that acid. Finish what you have to do and bring the document back to the scriptorium. And for God’s sake, do not call me Father! I haven’t worn a habit for years!”
“As you wish. I will leave as soon as I have tidied the lectern and gathered my blades. However, there was one more thing.”
“The time that I will need to prepare the new ink…”
“If your Grace will allow it, I would like to be excused from coming to the scriptorium. At home I have all the required tools, and there I could carry out tests in peace and quiet. I also need to find certain ingredients in the forest, so I will have to stay outside the city walls overnight.”
“In that case, I will tell a soldier to escort you. if you were attacked just this morning inside the shelter of the walls, just imagine what might happen to you on the other side.”
“I don’t think that will be necessary. I know the area well, and Theresa can accompany me.”
“Ha!” bellowed Wilfred. “You still look at Theresa with a first-time father’s eyes, but that young woman attracts men as if they were in heat. If bandits get a whiff of her you won’t have time to cross yourselves. You worry about the codex, and I will take care of you. The soldier will be at your house this afternoon.”
Gorgias decided not to persist. He had planned to spend the next two days looking for the man who had attacked him, but with the soldier at his heels it would be too difficult. Still, he decided to end the conversation to avoid alarming Wilfred any further.
Gathering his belongings, he changed the subject. “How long do you think the king will take?” asked Gorgias.
“Charlemagne? I don’t know. A month. Maybe two. The last letter announced that a convoy with supplies was to set off immediately.”
“But the passes are blocked.”
“Indeed. But sooner or later they will arrive. The pantries will be completely empty before long.”
Gorgias nodded. Rations were becoming meager, and soon there would be nothing left.
“Very well. If there is nothing else.” added Wilfred. The count took his reins tightening the harnesses on the dogs.
He cracked his whip, and the beasts turned the contraption heavily around.
He was about to leave the scriptorium when a servant burst into the room, screaming as though he had seen the devil himself:
“The factoriae! For the love of God! Fire is devouring them!”
Copyright © 2013 by Antonio Garrido.
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A native of Spain, a former educator, and industrial engineer, Antonio Garrido has received acclaim for the darkly compelling storytelling and nuanced historical details that shape his novel The Corpse Reader, the fictionalized account of the early life of Song Cí, the Chinese founding father of forensic science, which received 2012's Zaragoza International Prize for best historical novel published in Spain (Premio Internacional de Novela Histórica Ciudad de Zaragoza). Garrido currently resides in Valencia, Spain.