The book sat on the writing desk, closed and tightly bound. It smelled of must and ancient leather. No doubt it had been beautiful once, but the gold leaf along the binding had worn into obscurity. Little splashes of water surrounded it, but Brother Lasair made no move to dry them, or to remove the book from danger. It hadn’t gotten wet so far, had it?
A candle guttered and went out, leaving only one other to illuminate the cell. The merest breath of night breeze whistled between the shutters. Brother Lasair sprang to his feet and occupied his hands with the business of relighting his battered lamp. Better not to be left in the dark with that book. As he worked, his eyes fell upon the spot in the doorway where the stranger had stood that evening—was it only an hour before?
“A guest to see you, Brother Lasair.” The young postulant had kept his eyes resolutely on the floor as Lasair opened the door to his cell. Good. He showed the proper respect, both for his guest and his superior. The monk’s eyes flicked from the postulant to the stranger, and he took an inadvertent step back.
The man was big, but not from fat or muscle. He had the effect of making his environment seem all that much smaller for containing him. Lasair recalled going to church as a child, pressed in amongst a forest of adulthood. The empty vastness of the cathedral narrowed to a single vertical column, with him crouched insignificant at the bottom.
The stranger’s clothes were dark in color, fashionable but in no way ostentatious; his posture neither nervous nor menacing. Yet Lasair stepped back, blinked and stammered in surprise. The eyes. They were blue, so dark as to be almost violet, and they did not blink.
“Well. Well. Well, then, my son.” Lasair indicated the lone stool with a wave of a bony arm. “To what do I owe the pleasure of this…,” he glanced out the open window, “rather late visit. Do you have business that could not wait until morning?”
“I have no business that need be postponed,” said the stranger. He spoke Latin, and oddly accented. For the first time, Lasair noticed that his visitor was carrying a cloth satchel. He seated himself upon the stool and swung the satchel onto the writing desk. “I have a commission for you.”
Now he was on more familiar ground, and the monk felt his composure begin to return. It was common practice for the scribes to take commissions to enrich the abbey’s coffers. He replied in Latin himself. “A commission, you say? What is its nature? And on whose behalf, my son? You have yet to identify yourself or your master.”
“I am Tiarnach.” Nothing else.
Lasair leapt into the silence. “I am Brother Lasair. I serve as choir monk and scribe at the Abbey. What brings you to Kells?”
“I have been to Mainistir Cheanannais many times,” said Tiarnach. He gave the name of the abbey in Irish, even more oddly accented than his Latin. He spoke again in the latter. “As I said, I have a commission.” He opened the satchel and withdrew a parcel, also wrapped in pale blue cloth and held closed with two leather straps.
The monk watched breathless as Tiarnach untied the straps and removed the blue linen wrapping. Lasair was reminded of the way that the peasant women swaddled their children, tightly but with great care. Amazing that such a large man could show such delicacy of motion! The stranger removed the last of the wrapping. Lasair leaned forward.
It was quite an ordinary book, if the cover was any judge. The monk chided himself as a fool. Just another book, of course, to copy and return to the nobleman who owned it. Land grants, probably, or the genealogy of some family or other. Perhaps a collection of sermons, or a book-of-the-hours for a lady’s prayerful devotion.
Lasair drew closer. The cover bore no title. “You wish me to copy this book?”
“In what language is it written? Irish? Latin?” No response. “Greek? Hebrew?”
“Will you do it?”
Lasair reached out to open the book, but Tiarnach casually set it upon the writing desk, and left his massive hand upon it. Although the man looked relaxed, Lasair felt he would find it easier to uproot the abbey itself than to move that implacable arm. “Will you do it?” the stranger repeated.
Once again, Lasair’s curiosity was aroused. He doubted that the contents would interest him, however sensitive the material, but he was intrigued. He looked from the cover up to the man’s eyes, purple as a king’s robe, deep and steady.
“I will need ink.”
“You’ll have it.”
“No.” Tiarnach went back to his satchel and drew out another book, one already bound in the same dark leather as the other. “You will use this. I have special requirements, and the first is that you copy into this book and no other.” He set the blank volume aside on Lasair’s sleeping cot.
“My son, that is impossible. If an error is made….”
“There can be no errors.”
Lasair sighed. Obstinate layman. “Your other requirements?” he asked.
“Will you do it?”
“Yes. I will do it.” And he sighed again.
“Good.” Tiarnach’s hand still did not move from the cover. “These are my requirements. As I said, you will copy into this book, and no other. You will tell no one what you are copying, not even Father Guaire. If he asks, say that it is a private commission, and you are bound by vow not to reveal it.” The man smiled. “That will be true.”
The monk nodded. “Go on.”
“You will use only the ink I supply to you, and no other. When you are not working, you will cover the book in the cloth and bind it with the leather straps.” Tiarnach leaned forward, eyes bright and flashing. “And you will make no mistakes. None. I will be able to tell if you do.”
“No one has ever faulted my accuracy.” He tilted his chin a bit at this.
“I know.” Tiarnach stood, and offered his hand. “Take the night to acquaint yourself with the book. I will have ink sent along in the morning.”
Lasair took the proffered hand, and found his own dwarfed within it. He did feel that he had made a vow, as much as he did upon taking orders. Obedience, conversion of life, stability. He had lived his life by these tenets, but now other bonds were laid upon his heart. Tell no one. Cover it, bind it. Use his ink. And again, the litany repeated. Tell no one.
And then, he was left alone in his cell, with the book. It seemed diminished without Tiarnach hovering over it. It lay still, inconspicuous, on the flat portion of his writing desk.
Curiosity or no, he waited a moment before opening it. The leather on the cover was cracked in places. With care, he opened the book, supporting the spine with his left hand until it had settled on the table. What he saw took his breath.
The first leaf was a carpet page, intricate and colorful. There was wear from rubbing where the ink had faded, and the page itself appeared to be brittle with age. But the colors! Cinnibar and verdigris, ochre and flake white, ultramarine and orpiment and sepia. He marveled, but even as he did, his mind was breaking it down into steps. He would trace it out first with his lead stylus, then lay in the borders with oak gall ink. He felt his excitement for the project rising.
He turned the page, both fearing and hoping to find an illumination as detailed as that on the first page. Instead, he found a page of text, seventeen lines. The language was unfamiliar, although the script was not. It was a majuscule half-uncial, sprinkled through with odd branchings of Ogham script, and even a few spiky runes, clumped together as if distrustful of the Roman letters surrounding them. Some characters were entirely unfamiliar. The initials were not illuminated, which would save time, although there did seem to be some species of illustration towards the bottom, curls and peaks like ocean waves, which might prove more challenging to render.
Only the stipulation to use the stranger’s own ink kept him from beginning at once. Instead, he turned the page. With a scream, he jumped back, knocking the tome to the center of the writing desk. It sat there, sloshing and dripping.
A rectangular hole had been cut out of the middle of the page, and presumably many of the pages below. The same clear text as on the previous page surrounded the hole, ending on one side and resuming on the other as if nothing unusual had intervened. But his eyes did not focus on the text.
Instead, they were drawn to the hole, and what filled it. The rectangular cutout in the middle of the book was filled with water—clear, sparkling water that came up to the very top of the page. It had spilled over where he had jolted the book in his surprise, and ran down the sides of the thick volume. It did not soak into the page as it dripped onto his writing desk, where it left tiny pools of moisture. As he watched, transfixed, the rippling liquid became smooth and calm. It lay there, sparkling in the candlelight, where it couldn’t possibly be.
With trembling fingers, Lasair extended his arm and flipped closed the corner of the book. There it remained, and except to light the oil lamp an hour later, Lasair never took his eyes from it.
The next morning, a knock at the door awoke him from a sleep he did not know he had begun. The matins bell had yet to ring, and the light of false dawn peeked through the crack in the shuttered window. Lasair moved to the door, turned back, and tossed the cloth over the book. He had neglected in his vigil to cover and bind it, but nothing seemed to have changed. Satisfied, he threw open the door to his cell. “Yes?”
It was the postulant from the night before, eyes still downcast. He held out a parcel. “This arrived for you this morning. I was told to bring it right away.”
“And you did right, my son,” said Lasair with false composure. “Off you go.”
He managed not to slam the door in his haste. In moments, he set the parcel upon the stool and unwrapped it. He found a wooden case held closed by a small silver clasp, which he disengaged with trembling hands. He flipped open the lid.
Inside lay a wooden awl with a fine steel point, a bronze awl, and two forks, wood and bronze, as guides for letter height. There were half a dozen miniver brushes—including one smaller and finer than he had ever used before—a pen knife, a stylus, and an assortment of long, straight quill feathers. There was even a small bag of gum sandarac. And then there were the pigments.
What colors! Each filled its own glass jar, arranged like a rainbow before him. And so much! Lasair had held vigil in the sacristy, seen all the great treasures of the abbey, but this was wealth beyond imagining.
Then, for the first time, Lasair examined the blank book that had been left for him. He opened it gingerly, half expecting it to be filled with water itself. But although the internal pages had been cut in the same way, the rectangular cavity they formed was empty.
The calfskin was fine, sanded smooth on the hair side and already lightly pounced with gum sandarac on the flesh side. There was nothing to distract him, Lasair thought. All I have to do is copy.
Outside, a cock crowed, and a few moments after the bells rang the call to prayer. For the first time since he was a postulant, Lasair felt a spark of impatience at the call to morning office, but it was quickly set aside. The book would not be finished in a day. Quickly, he wrapped the older book in its cloth wrapping, bound it with the leather straps, and went off to prayer.
His usual inks and brushes felt rude by comparison, but Lasair could not give up his more important work. The abbey’s great task was to prepare a new copy of the gospel for the sacristy. It was to be bound with gold and jewels, illuminated with more colors than his eye had ever beheld on the page. Until last night. Since then, the effort felt vain, an attempt to run a race that had already been lost. But he painted on.
After vespers his brothers took dinner in the refectory, but Lasair retired to his cell. He would have three hours to work before compline, and in that time, surely he could trace out a good deal of the carpet page. He closed his cell door—it did not lock—and unbound the book with impatient hands.
The work went swiftly, almost rapturously. The stylus, its tip a perfect blend of lead and tin, marked sure lines on the calf-skin. At first he did not ponder the patterns he traced, but the longer he worked, the more confidence he gained, and his mind was freed to consider what he drew.
There were the usual intricate traceries along the border of the illumination. These were for protection from evil spirits, or so Father Guaire had taught him. The demons became lost in the wild patterns if they tried to infiltrate from outside, and so could not pierce to the life within the page.
The traditional knots and loops were welcome, for they were the only taste of familiarity to be found. The carpet page was no illumination of the Holy Cross, or of Creation, or of the Life of the Evangelist. It was a depiction of water, of ice and steam and rain and little rivers and the great, roaring ocean. Vivid blues jumped from the page, and Lasair wondered if his employer had provided him with enough pigment for the job.
He had barely begun, or so it seemed, before he was called to compline. His mouth recited the familiar prayers and sang the familiar hymns without conscious impetus. Immediately after he returned to his cell and resumed his work, drawing the intricate traceries until his eyes would not stay open.
Three weeks later, he had finished the first page.
The second was far quicker. It was only writing, although he had to practice the unfamiliar Ogham and runic characters several times on a spare piece of well-scraped parchment. He had to make certain that he could duplicate each angle, each serif. Scarcely a week went by before he stood on the precipice.
In a month, he had not opened the book past the second page, to where reason ended and unreality began. Lasair cut a fresh quill, made sure his inks were in order, and re-scraped his practice parchment. Finding no other excuse for delay, he turned the page.
Water poured out of the book, which was propped on the slanted surface of the writing desk. With a cry, he slammed it closed and jumped back, hands swatting the water off his robes. The book! No, it was not even damp. But the blank?
With relief, Lasair saw that it too had survived the deluge. The newly cut quill had been soaked, and the spare parchment was soaked with water, but no other damage had been done. He had learned a valuable lesson and not paid for it. Such was God’s grace.
He dried his work surface, then moved the original book to the flat portion of the writing desk, where the inks and other tools usually sat. It was awkward, especially given the size of the book, but he managed. He opened it again to the third page, and saw the impossible pool of water, just as full as it had ever been. He took the bronze fork and began to measure out his lines.
Soon, even this page was done. Lasair expected that when he did, the cavity in the copy would fill with water, but it remained empty and dry. A stab of disappointment pierced him. Then he chuckled. Was he so accustomed to the unnatural, now, that he could predict how it worked? He advanced to the next page.
Another surprise—the water was not the same! The familiar odor of fish and brine came to his nostrils. The sea! Tiny waves rippled the surface of the water. They somehow contrived not to spill, so long as the book was kept level and not jostled.
Each page, he soon learned, opened onto different waters. Some were black, marshy, and putrid; others were warm and fragrant. One bubbled like it was boiling, yet gave no heat. In another, there was not water but fog, dense and thick; in yet another, drops of liquid hanging suspended. He believed that if he turned the book upside down, it would rain on him, and in one giddy moment, almost did so.
Finished pages built up on the left of both volumes. Very few had anything written on the reverse, which was invariably the flesh-side of the calfskin. For those that did, he dutifully pounced and dusted off the page, even though they had all been prepared before. There could be no mistakes, after all.
The black waters of a lagoon gave way to sparkles of suspended dew. Once, a great jet of steam fountained out. Had he been standing over the book when the page was turned, he would have been badly scalded. From then on, Lasair stood well back whenever a new page was to be broached. There was water, freezing cold and frozen to solid ice, and even a thunderhead with tiny bolts of lightning dancing within.
Then he reached the last page. It had also been cut into the same familiar, rectangular shape. Although there was less than a finger’s width of leather-bound cover below the page, the cavity seemed to reach down far beyond the confines of the book itself. This no longer bothered him. But the water in the last page did.
It was a whirlpool, swirling and roaring. Flecks of foam sparked from it, and the motion drew his eyes inexorably toward the center. He found himself leaning forward, and had to bring his hand before his eyes to break the contact before he was able to draw away.
Lasair shuddered. Other pages had been dangerous, even deadly, but with proper precaution they posed no real threat. But this one… he felt death on the other side of the page. He looked at the original as seldom as possible, but even so, he twice found himself staring into the middle of the vortex without any clear memory of initiating the eye contact.
An hour later it was done, and he closed the original, folded the cloth around, and bound it. His attention then turned to the copy. It lay where he left it, tilted on the slant of his desk, ink drying in the open air. Lasair suddenly realized that Tiarnach had given him no way of contacting him to report on the job’s completion. He supposed that the other man would eventually return to check on the progress, and then he….
Every candle in the room went out, at once. Outside, a gust of wind battered against the shutters, once, twice. Then with a great sucking, tearing sound, the shutters burst open.
That morning, the view from the window had been a green, rolling hill, looking down to a meadow, a stand of trees, and in the distance the town of Kells from which the abbey took its name. Now all that had vanished, and Lasair saw only the sea. Waves lapped over the windowsill. Torrents of rain slashed down, nearly horizontal. He cringed, too frightened to cry out. He could feel pinpoints of water on his skin, the sting of ice, burning jets of steam.
All noise ceased. Lasair’s eyes opened, although he would not have thought such a feat was possible. There, outside the window, all the more terrifying for its utter silence, was a great cyclone of water. The great funnel captured the rain, drew the clouds into itself. It was draining the sea!
Then, with a mighty rush, the head of the funnel tore loose from the sky and streamed towards the window, like the head of a serpent striking at prey. Lasair could see the inside of the funnel as it filled the window of his world. He saw it plainly—the vortex from the book. It was surrounding him, consuming him! He felt himself caught up in the flood, pulled inexorably down!
And then it was over. He still crouched on the floor of his cell. He was completely dry. The shutters were still open, but outside hung the moon and the hills and the distant fires of the town.
On his writing desk, the newly copied book lay open. On the exposed page, swirling placidly, was a small, quiescent whirlpool. Shaking in every limb, he stumbled to the desk and closed the book. Bindings! He had put them on the other book. He unwrapped it, opened it. The older book was empty.
As quickly as he dared, Lasair wrapped his copy in the cloth and bindings, and entered the long watches of the night. Sleep never came, but eventually, sunrise did.
The next night, Tiarnach returned. He was unescorted; he did not knock, and Lasair, kneeling in prayer, did not even hear the cell door open.
“I see you didn’t make any mistakes,” he said. Lasair’s eyes snapped open, and the soft movements of his lips ceased. He made the sign of the cross and quickly rose. Tiarnach leafed through the copied book, almost idly. “You do good work.”
“You are a demon!” Lasair bellowed. The other man was as large as ever. Looking up into his face, the monk felt dwarfed to insignificance. He still pointed a trembling finger directly at the man’s forehead, while the other made the sign of the cross at his breast. “God has damned you!”
Tiarnach didn’t flinch. In fact, his lips curved to a smile, though a small and sad one. “So I’ve been told,” he said, “every time the first book has been copied.”
“The first book?”
“There are four.” Tiarnach set the copy down on the writing desk, open to the last page. He then picked up the original. “This was the Book of Water.”
This last statement seemed so obvious that Lasair did not reply. He continued to glare at Tiarnach, although the man’s eyes reminded him of the vortex, which he knew was churning away, just out of his line of sight.
“The books must be copied, of course.” Tiarnach thumbed through the old volume. Parchment dust and dried ink floated down, but he flipped on. “They age like anything else. But the power they hold does not, and it must be contained.”
Casually, Tiarnach turned and stuffed the old book into the vortex. Reason said it should not fit, but reason had no place any more. At one moment, the shape of the heavy tome was drawn, stretched, and twisted, and then it vanished noiselessly. Tiarnach dusted off his hands.
“Witchcraft,” Lasair said, backing up as far as the cell would allow him. “Demons!” His hand hovered before his chest, drawing his jerky crosses into open space, over and over.
“You see power and you call it evil,” Tiarnach said. “But the vortex did not consume you. It is great and terrible, yes, but evil? It merely obeys the nature with which it was created. And now it is kept safe.” He closed the book. The sound it made was too normal for belief.
“Why should I believe you?” Lasair whispered.
Tiarnach didn’t answer immediately. Instead, he swaddled the book in its linen wrapping, secured it firmly, and deposited it in his satchel. “You felt the power of water. You saw it.” It wasn’t a question, but Lasair nodded anyway. “You claim that God is omnipotent. Ask yourself, Brother Lasair. What does omnipotent mean?”
And then, Tiarnach withdrew a cloth-wrapped parcel from his satchel. At first, Lasair thought it was the same book again, but this cloth was different, dyed saffron yellow instead of pale blue. He set it on the writing table, and next to it another stout leather tome, ready to be filled.
“I don’t want it,” said Lasair, but there was no force to his words. He expected Tiarnach to argue with him, but he did not. Instead, he knelt next to Lasair, in the corner where he huddled, and laid a gentle hand on his shoulder.
“The burden is heavy, but it must fall on someone.” There was something liquid behind his eyes—was it pity?—but then it was gone, and the fathomless violet depths returned. Even after he closed the cell door behind him and left Lasair to stare fixedly at the second book, his words, and that look, remained.
The second book was not opened for thirty-three days.
Lasair lost himself in his work. He returned to the Gospel pages with renewed vigor, even returning to work after vespers. Traditionally, those of his order were at liberty at such time, and even the most pious scribes dedicated it to solemn contemplation. When the abbot, Father Guaire, questioned him about the flurry of work, he had explained that it was an act of special devotion, self-imposed.
After two weeks, though, even that excuse had worn thin. Father Guaire intercepted him as he was about to enter the main scribal chambers, and sent him to work in the gardens.
“Is this a penance?” Lasair had asked.
The abbot regarded him with unblinking serenity. “Brother Lasair… what have you done that would require penance? I know of nothing.”
“Just so, just so,” he replied, kissed the abbot’s hand, and left.
Lasair was no longer young, but his constitution was hearty, and no comments were made of his sudden transferal to the abbey gardens. Although he chafed at first, the labor soon became welcome. He lost himself in the steady movement of the hoe, the sun and rain beating at his back, the sensation of life around him. At night, the exhaustion of his body weakened the desire, the stubborn, unwanted desire, to unleash the book and begin his new task.
That was the most frustrating part to Lasair, the niggling tickle of a commitment unfulfilled, the sensation that all his piety and labor was wasted time. Some days it was stronger than others, and the strange characters he had stared at for so long began to dance in his head, constantly threatening to explode into meaning. On those days, he worked the hoe hard until his hands blistered, unable to hold a quill even if he wanted. Then, for a time, the feeling passed.
On one day, thirty-three days after Tiarnach had departed with the Book of Water, the feeling took Lasair in its grip and held him, hard. It was a hot day, full midsummer, and the sun cast a baleful basilisk glare onto the parched earth. No rain had fallen for two weeks. Not even the morning and evening offerings of well water could keep the plants from looking sickly and scorched.
There was wind, though, fierce and gusting. It should have been welcome; instead it carried along lashes of dry dust that abraded his face like sand scouring a kitchen pot. As a postulant, he had come to know the inside of every pot as a personal friend, and could tell by the consistency of the evening’s dinner how hard the work of the morning would be.
“The kitchens! The kitchens!” someone shouted. For a moment Lasair wondered if he had been speaking his thoughts aloud. Then he turned to find the kitchens awash in flames, whipped high and mighty in the rushing wind.
The kitchens stood apart from the abbey proper, a stout stone building with a high roof, squatting a short way down the hill. But even as he ran to snatch up his watering buckets, he saw that the wind had betrayed them further. It carried embers aloft that ignited the grass, the border of parched rose bushes, the stables. Lasair nearly stumbled in his frenzied run to the well—the abbey roof was smoldering.
The book! he screamed in his mind. Lasair didn’t bother to try to convince himself that he meant the Gospel of John that would become the pride of the abbey. He was at the well now, but his attention was back on the abbey, and he tried to place where his cell lay in comparison to the rush of flames along the dense, dry thatch. Could he make it there and back in time?
Someone shoved passed him rudely, berating him for his delay. Lasair neither felt nor heard. The letters and symbols had sprung back to his mind, now. They were before his vision, as if painted with tiny, gentle brushstrokes onto the surface of his eyes. He turned a page, not knowing of what, and new words came into focus. The meaning was there, so elusive, but pulsing with power. He opened his hand and the words welcomed him, bursting with meaning and possibility.
He knelt. His lips began to move. He felt the world around him tense, expectant. He felt an edge where none had been before, a fulcrum, and Lasair himself stood at the end of the lever. He pushed.
A dimming of the sunlight provoked him to jerk open eyes he did not know he had closed. Heavy, dark clouds had covered the sun, crowding the sky, darting forks of lightning at each other as if jockeying for position. Lasair gazed upward and saw the sky as if through a rectangular-cut frame of vellum, read the writing on the sky itself. He drew forth the rain.
The rain did not save the kitchens, or the rosebushes, or the stable. The damage was lessened, but not avoided altogether. But amidst the ashes of the lawns and gardens of Kells, the abbey stood unblemished.
Vespers took on the character of a mass of thanksgiving that evening, but Brother Lasair did not attend. Before the first notes of the Magnificat rang out in the chapel, the book had been unbelted, unwrapped, and opened to the first page. Another carpet page, of course. His heart chafed at the time it would take. When the cock crowed the next morning, however, his stylus had already traced out the whole of it.
Lasair was afraid, oh yes, of each and every letter he would find, of the hole in each page and the terror that no doubt awaited him on the last. He had no way of contacting Tiarnach, but hadn’t he come as soon as the first copy was finished? Beyond a doubt he knew that only by completing the second copy could he be summoned again. Lasair had questions for him.
The next day, he returned to work on the illuminated Gospel, and Father Guaire did not bar his way. He made sure to work assiduously but not feverishly. After missing the litany that first night, he did not miss another. His work was too important to be interrupted by the questions such behavior would surely evoke.
The first page gave way to the second, and when the time came for the third, he did not hesitate. There was the neat, rectangular hole cut deep into the pages. It appeared to be empty, but Lasair knew better. The illumination on carpet page had hinted what to expect. Wind.
A soft breeze, a stiff gale, the chill of a draft under a door. Once a blast of heat nearly blinded him; on another page, a continuous stream of air emerged, so cold that he wrapped himself in his winter habit on a warm August evening. Some of the breezes were sweet, like a meadow just out of sight, and some were stagnant and vile, bubbles bursting from the unsearchable depths of a swamp. A blast of sulfur made his eyes water. The gentle aroma of baking bread caused his stomach to growl.
Lasair worked on, never stopping to wonder what lay behind the next page. What mattered was what lay behind the very last page—the face of Tiarnach, come to collect his commission.
When he completed the penultimate page, Lasair stopped for the night. A good hour still remained to him, but he knew from experience that the last page might require special effort. Instead, he spent the time tidying his cell. Anything loose was carefully stowed away, under his bed or inside his stoutly built trunk. The marvelous case of pigments was wrapped in an old habit and packed in the middle.
That night, he slept. On the next he rose, did his morning chores, and returned to his cell. It was time meant to be spent in prayer, but he felt he could wait no longer. He commended his soul to God and set to work.
The day was bright and sunny. This time, he left the shutters open, so that no unnatural ocean could creep upon him unawares. Yes, better to finish this gruesome task without the gloom of night already upon him. He opened the Book of Air to the final page.
He had expected another vortex, but this did not come to pass. The cavity appeared as empty as all the others in this book, but he felt no breeze coming out, nor smelled any odor fair or foul. He began to write anyway, wondering if the vortex in the previous book had been merely a test, a foul joke, or even the fever of an overwrought imagination.
As he wrote, a sound intruded itself upon his consciousness. A hiss, like the trickle of breath through a cold-stuffed nose, but steady. It grew louder. Lasair began to feel the movement of air on his face, but could not pinpoint the source. Was it behind him? He turned his head, and the faint tickle of movement ruffled the back of his head.
The hiss was unnerving! He wanted to write faster, but dared not. No mistakes. Tiarnach would know, and then maybe he wouldn’t come. The hiss grew yet louder, became more open, like air sucked through pursed lips. Suddenly, he realized that the air around him was rushing into the book.
Steadily he worked on, and the sucking noise deepened, intensified into an unearthly howl. One line to go. The quill scratched along the page, the barbs of the feather whipping violently around the shaft, like snakes about the Medusa’s head. The last word… completed.
The shutters rumbled. Soft at first, then ever increasing in volume, Lasair heard a great tearing, ripping noise. As if it were a painted canvas and not the Irish landscape, the view out the window tore away, spiraling off into a void deeper than the ocean, blacker than a moonless night. All the air in the room rushed past him. Lasair’s midsection slammed hard into his writing desk. He lost his grip on the quill, and it went spiraling off into the void. It could be seen for a remarkably long time, growing ever smaller in the great and terrible emptiness.
Suddenly, the wind stopped. He tried to breathe, found he could not. He fell back hard, knocking aside the stool in his tumble, and lay gasping on the floor, a fish ready for gutting. A great pressure was building up behind his eyes. He shut them tight, and saw lights dance before his vision. His skin felt impossibly hot. Lasair arched his back and made one last feeble attempt at a breath… and was rewarded with a sweet flow of air.
He blinked himself back into awareness, waiting until the racking coughs passed before trying to rise. The quill was still gone, but everything else was as he had left it. Both books appeared to be empty, but he knew only one was. He shut them both, lay on his bed, and wept.
When he awoke, it was night outside—true night, this time, not the hateful empty blackness. Someone had lit the oil lamp. Tiarnach, presumably. He was seated on the stool, fingers steepled, occupying far more of the room than one man should.
Lasair found that all his questions had dried up along with his tears. “No mistakes this time, either.”
“Not yet,” Tiarnach continued to stare over his fingers. “But your path grows perilous, young one.”
“Young?” Those were words that had not applied to him in years. “Old enough to know where rain comes from. Never from an empty sky, not before.”
“So where did this rain come from?” It didn’t occur to Lasair until much later that Tiarnach knew exactly what he was talking about.
The monk sat up in his cot, giving him time to try to devise an answer. “Me,” he finally said. “The words. The book.”
“Why does it have to be copied?” It wasn’t the question he had planned to ask, but at the moment, it was the only one that mattered.
Tiarnach reached behind him and produced another bundle, this one wrapped in a cloth the deep brown of fresh loam. He removed the bindings, the linen, and a third book was revealed. It was as delicate as the others, leather thin and cracking, gold leaf worn away. For the first time, Lasair looked and saw that it was beautiful. He was so lost in his admiration that it was almost a surprise when the other spoke.
“A calf died to make these pages,” he said. “Many calves. A bull was skinned and tanned to make the binding. Offerings, in a way. This book, for all its power, is of the world. The power, too, is of this world, and no other. And that power is bound to the restrictions of this world, as sure as it is bound within these pages.”
He returned the unwrapped book to the writing desk. The sound it made was so ordinary as to be almost unreal. “Everything in this world dies, Lasair. We cannot stop that.” He paused. “But it can be renewed.”
Lasair nodded. It was not that he understood, exactly, more that he understood what remained for him to understand. Two more books. He knew he should feel humbled by all this, but he didn’t. He felt exalted.
“Go slow, my friend.” Tiarnach placed a hand on his arm as if to restrain him. “Remember your purpose.”
For the first few weeks, Lasair maintained an outward appearance of piety, but soon even the rigorous habit of the daily litanies eroded. He did only cursory work on the Gospel, skipped meals in the refectory altogether.
Once, Father Guaire came to his cell. It was the work of a moment to hide the books, old and new, beneath the cloth, and fall to his knees in the center of the room.
“Brother Lasair… are you ill?”
“I am in good health, Father,” he replied.
“Thanks be to God.” Although his head was bowed, Lasair could feel the abbot’s eyes on the back of his neck. “Still, you are pale. And shaking. I fear your isolation has upset your humors. Come and join your brothers.”
“I feel the need for solitude with God.” When it left his lips, Lasair did not even recognize it as a lie. Perhaps that was how it convinced the abbot, who nodded, blessed him, and departed.
Lasair was on his stool and back at work in moments. He had nearly reached the third page, where the windows began. He did not know exactly what to expect, but the mystery excited him. Still, he could guess.
This was the Book of Earth, surely. The carpet page had been towering mountains, rolling hills, and a desert plain, cut across with rock formations of a sort he never dreamed possible, great boulders stacked one upon another. It was beautiful, the illumination, but the words waited beyond it.
In the days since he called up the rainstorm, he had begun to think of the text of the book not as pen strokes on a page, or characters in an unknown tongue, but carriers of meaning, who significance he could decipher! He found he had surprisingly good recollection of the two books he had already copied, with patterns and rhythms that rose and fell in splendid complexity.
However, if he was to learn more, it must be through study. And as he wrote, he began to take notes on his own store of rough parchment. The full mystery was elusive, but he knew he could grasp it.
Inside the first window cut into the book was sand, of the finest grain imaginable. Then came pebbles, and rocks, and a sheer face of granite. But the next page was also sand, speckled black and white with pieces of tiny shell. Lasair flipped back what he had written. There were several words in common, a few in the Latin alphabet, and six runes in a row! He was elated.
As his work continued, his understanding increased, although if pressed, he would have been hard put to say precisely what he understood. Praise be that I am not greedy, he thought as he turned past a page that opened to a block of solid silver, only to find a gleaming surface of gold. Best that I was chosen, who has taken vows against worldly gain.
Lasair barely noticed as his quill sent him past rich soil and jagged shale, polished marble, and even a pit of tiny bones. His attention was so focused that he almost turned to the final page without noticing what he was doing. He gave a wry chuckle and closed the book for the night. Not quite yet.
As he bound the tome and prepared to retire for the night, a distant clamor came, by degrees, to his ears. Shouts? Yes, and footsteps pounding past his door. He had just resolved to investigate when his cell door was thrown open.
It was young postulant who had brought Tiarnach to see him. This time, his eyes were not downcast, but wild and direct. He held a torch, and the reflection it cast in his pupils gave him a flicker of madness.
“Attack!” he shouted. He was trying to look in all directions at once, in terror of the darkness behind his eyes. “Norsemen!” A great cry sounded, though it was impossible to tell from where, and the postulant started, cast one last, anguished look at Lasair, and bounded off down the corridor.
An attack! They were great thieves of books, the Norsemen, although godless and illiterate. They took them for the ornamentation, to feed their lust to possess beautiful objects. Three gospels were already completed, and it seemed their fame had already reached enemy ears.
But the jolt of fear that ran through him had nothing to do with the loss of the last fifteen years of work. With shaking hands, he gathered the two books, original and copy, and all his notes. He looked around… nothing to pack them into, not so much as a Hessian sack. He took up the cilice he wore on Ash Wednesday. Ironic… the garment was made of sackcloth, and would now fulfill its intended purpose.
He did not even pause to don his sandals. With barely a glance, he darted off down the corridor. He did not have a specific destination in mind, just away. A cacophony of voices loitered at the edge of hearing, the edge of consciousness. Down the hall to the side gate, perhaps, just out of the abbey and into the free air.
Unbidden, the letters and words that had lately dominated his life came to mind. Some he recognized, other he did not, but they seemed to be a blending of the three books he had studied so far. Earth… a sense of the land around him spread out around him. In a way, that sense had always been there, if only he could have opened whatever eyelids obscured it. Wind… tiny eddies that rippled out from these strange patches of… water, that moved and swirled and seemed almost alive.
The Norse raiders, he realized with a start. He could sense them ahead! He turned aside to the stairs, which led to the rude loft where the postulants slept.
The usual neat rows of sleep mats were scattered. A lone candle burned, a stub in a pool of its own wax. Lasair knew from his own time in this very room the exact place on the ceiling where the thatch could be pushed aside for access to the abbey wall. Postulants were forbidden on the wall, but at night when no eyes were watching, who would know?
Lasair had not been a postulant for many years, but his heart still felt a tiny race of rebellion as he rearranged the thatch behind him. The span between roof and wall looked longer than it had in his youth, but he steeled his heart and leapt, clutching the cilice tightly to his chest.
He paused, heart racing. Had anyone heard his landing? Doubtful. The cries of panic and angry Norse shouting were all around. Lasair looked up and down the length of the wall, and his stomach leapt. Two Norsemen, racing towards him! Only long training kept down the curse that rose to his lips. Of course trained soldiers would take up positions on the walls! Lasair turned to flee, but froze in mid step. Three more approached from the other direction, bearded phantoms clad in leather, iron spears at the ready.
Why had he tried to run? Closed, neither book looked special. The Norsemen wanted only treasure. But they would certainly stop closer to examine a text that the monks so obviously wanted to hide. A shout of laughter went up from one of them, and the others echoed it. They were advancing slowly but steadily, moonlight painting wild patterns in their eyes.
He had only one chance. Lasair withdrew the original book from the cilice and opened it to the last page. Would there be a vortex of earth, this time? Another great emptiness? No… only a sheer face of rock, a hairline crack down the middle. There was a grain in the rock, like wood, and across the crack it did not quite line up. Some great force had broken the rock, shifted and ground it down.
At the moment of this understanding, a rumble came from beneath his feet. The Norsemen halted only a few strides away from him, but Lasair no longer saw them, not really. He saw their water, their earth, and their air, saw them as figures on a page and he understood.
Another rumble, stronger this time, came from beneath his feet. He could feel the power of the book, awoken now after a long slumber. He was forcing it to leave its den for another, and it was angry.
It’s not yet ready, Lasair thought. He had not finished the last page of the new book! The earth rumbled again, for longer this time, sending loose stones skittering from the wall. The cries in the courtyard were all of panic now, Irish and Norse together.
One of the Norsemen on the wall, set apart by his steel helmet and inlaid shield, made a move for Lasair, trying to tear the book from his hands. The ground heaved as they wrestled with the book, danced in time to the swaying contest of strength.
More symbols came to Lasair’s eyes, and he seized upon them. Water swirled with wind, earth tearing, freezing and boiling and steaming….
The Norseman crumpled in upon himself. Lasair caught a horrified glimpse of the man’s eyes as his steel helmet sagged like a limp sail and collapsed towards the leather breastplate. The whole mass fell to the ground, impossibly twisted, and as it fell, a puff of dust billowed out, like from an untied sack of grain.
Lasair fell back in horror. He took no notice as the other four Norsemen fled, one even jumping from the wall to get away quicker. The book tumbled from his hands and lay next to its near twin. Both, now, were open to the final page.
A greater tremor now ran through the ground, and a horrible grinding sound came from the abbey. The power was starting to break free, now, but it had nowhere to go. He had to finish the final page, but he had no ink.
The letters again swam before his eyes. Lasair didn’t want to read them now, but he couldn’t turn away. What is ink? the words asked. Nothing more than earth and water. Call them to you.
And he did, though he could not have said how. Water drawn from the air united with tar and pitch, summoned from God knew where. He began to write, with no quill other than his own mind.
In less time than he would have believed possible, the page was copied. Lasair slumped back, exhausted, but it was not over. The crack in the stone face of the book split wide open, and beneath it the wall of the abbey split open too. A wide cleft opened in the ground, deep beyond measure, and Lasair did not even try to grasp at the side as he fell into it. He did not weep as the walls of the gorge closed in around him, did not cry out as he felt himself buried forever.
Nor did he wonder when he opened his eyes, a lifetime later, to find himself still on the abbey wall. The old book was empty, and the new book lay quiescent, open to the last fatal page. As he watched, the crack shifted minutely, like a sleeper seeking a more comfortable position.
An unreasoning anger filled him. He seized his notes, which lay scattered about him, and thrust them toward the crack. It opened, as he knew it would, and swallowed them up. The old book was next, far too large for the opening, but it slipped smoothly in nonetheless. Lasair cast about for something else to feed it. He wanted it to swallow the world, but all he could find was his abandoned cilice and a wadded mass of leather and steel. He could not bear to touch either.
Lasair left the abbey that night, without a word. In the aftermath of the attack, no one questioned him as he gathered supplies from the kitchens, or when he led the least terrified of the remaining pack ponies from the stables. He was three miles away from the abbey before he thought to look back, but by then the hills had obscured it.
At first he had no set destination in mind, but Lasair paid attention to where his feet were taking him, and discovered that they knew the road. There was a farm only eight miles further on. What was it called…Clonasillagh, that was it. The farmer had once brought his wife to the abbey for healing, and Lasair had prayed at her bedside. Perhaps gratitude would inspire him to charity.
“You can stay in the South Cottage,” said the farmer’s wife, who as it turned out felt the gratitude more keenly.
“Only ‘til spring, mind,” said the farmer. “Lad’ll come up from town fer the plantin’, so he will.”
Lasair blessed them and continued to the cottage. It was a hump of mud and thatch on the side of a hill, with one square cut window for illumination, but the farmer’s wife assured him it had a good stout table for him to write on, plenty of fresh rushes at the pond for bedding, and an axe to set him right for firewood. It would serve.
He tied the pony outside, and shouldered open the disused door with an effort. He blinked into the dimness, dropped his pack to the floor, and froze. Tiarnach sat in the single chair, far too large for the room, his violet eyes catching more light than the dim interior offered.
“I was wondering when you would show up,” Lasair said. “You can have your book.”
Tiarnach did not rise. He watched as Lasair bent to his pack and withdrew the swaddled volume and deposited it on the table in front of him.
“You have left the abbey.”
“I couldn’t stay.” Lasair wrestled the door shut behind him, casting the cottage into an even deeper gloom. “I killed a man.” Only a whisper in the darkness, but the echoes seemed deafening.
“You disobeyed my instructions.” Tiarnach finally moved, but only to claim the book and stow it somewhere beneath the table. “You copied the text for your own purposes.”
“I destroyed those notes.” His voice was hoarse.
“I used different ink, too. Am I to be punished?” A shred of defiance allowed him to meet Tiarnach’s eyes, then.
“It is not my place,” he replied.
Lasair rushed to fill the silence that followed. “I only wanted to learn. But I didn’t, not really. I still can’t understand it.”
“Can you not? Young one, what language are we speaking?”
With a start, Lasair actually listened to the words, and realize it was not Latin they were speaking, nor Irish or Hebrew or Greek, or even the heathen tongue of the Norsemen. But he recognized it as the unknown tongue, or tongues, in which the books were written.
Lasair deliberately spoke in Latin. “Why is such evil allowed to exist? Why not burn the books?” He took a few tentative steps closer to Tiarnach. “Let us destroy them, please.”
“The books have no will of their own,” Tiarnach told him. “A thing cannot be evil, only the one who wields it.”
The words stung Lasair. “So I am evil. That’s what you’re saying.”
“Do you think so?”
“And nor do I.” Tiarnach bent down again and retrieved another parcel, this one a red so vivid that it seemed to draw to itself all the paltry light in the cottage. “I think, in your ignorance, you moved a stone and broke the dam. Now you will be more careful.” He slid the book forward across the table.
Lasair had to laugh. “Do you truly think I’m going to touch that thing?”
“Of course you will. You want this to be over.” Tiarnach leaned forward. “And that means finishing your task.”
“I’ll….” The denial died on his lips. He was right, after all. There was no way out but forward. He changed was he was going to say. “I’ll do it.”
“Take great care,” Tiarnach warned. “This book is the most dangerous of the four. Do not turn to the last page until its time, and then do not stop until it is complete, no matter what you see. Do not resist the power, but do not try to claim it.” He stood, and his eyes flashed in time with his words. “This is the Book of Fire, and it will burn.”
Lasair quickly adapted to his new surroundings. He found a pair of old oil lamps, and set them on opposite corners of the table. This he placed in the center of the room, directly under a hole in the thatch that would serve as a chimney, just in case. He even found a pair of cast iron tongs, though he couldn’t imagine what use he could possibly have for them.
His pigments were arranged before him, half shells ready for the mixing of inks. His brushes were clean, his tools arrayed. Lasair began to work.
From the moment he opened the book, he could tell it was different than the others. The Book of Water smelled of mold and must, as if the moisture had permeated its very essence. The Book of Air rustled and crinkled like autumn leaves in the wind, and the Book of Earth had the rich, gritty texture of fresh turned soil.
But this book… the leather was dry and peeling like sunburned skin. It was dusty, too, but not the fine white dust of gum sandarac, or even the flaky specks of brittle parchment. This book was full of ashes.
The carpet page could have been an illustration of hell. Every figure, of tree or building, of animal or man, existed to be consumed. The flames were myriad, and in colors beyond the red and orange of the fireplace, or the white and yellow of the blacksmith’s forge. There were green flames and blue, violet and black. A mistake would mean disaster, and only that kept him from rushing past the gruesome work.
Finally he finished, and moved on to the following page. As with the other books, it was a sheet of pure text. Lasair tried not to read what was written, but he felt that in some unknowable way, his eyes had been opened, and he could not unsee the meaning behind the words. Flame, and the potential for flame, flickered fitfully in his mind.
When the time came for the first of the window pages, Lasair stood back as far as he could, and after several clumsy attempts, managed to turn the page with the tongs. Crackling orange flames sprang up, but somehow did not emerge from the page. Like the pool of water so long ago, as long as the book was level, nothing emerged. Even so, the edges of the window were not cleanly cut, but rather blackened and curled.
He worked quickly, and did not need to use the farmer’s axe to procure firewood during the winter days. His work provided heat enough. He saw flames of all colors, even the impossible ones of the carpet page. The blue fire was the hottest. He was forced to close the book and copy each line from memory, or else the temperature rose too high.
There were pages other than pure flame. He saw coals seething with scarcely concealed heat, followed by sand so hot it had melted into glass. On one page, a silvery white metal sat placidly for a few moments before bursting into brilliant white flame that seared holes into his vision.
Other pages were less demonstrative, but no less dangerous. One window opened onto a gritty black powder which looked more suited to the Book of Earth, but if the text around it was to be believed, one spark would ignite the whole mass into a concussive fireball of destruction.
That was the greatest pain of the entire endeavor. Not the dehydration, or the ever-present threat of imminent annihilation at the turning of a page. It was the meaning of the words which he could not escape. They spoke of a world so hot that stone itself could melt, of a world someday consumed in the inferno of an expanding sun. They spoke of man, too, learning to harness these fires, sometimes to build, but usually to destroy.
They are ignorant, Lasair thought. I moved a stone and broke the dam, but they will set the world ablaze!
Winter had reached its deepest when the time for the last page arrived. Although three hours of light remained, Lasair ended his work for the day. He could take no chances. He must be well rested and at his most alert for the final lap.
He dined on mutton that night, a rare indulgence, but drank only water with his meal. As the night grew cooler, he lit a fire. Lasair used flint and tinder, although he knew that he could set the wood alight with only a word. But he wouldn’t want to warm himself by the light of that fire.
The night wore on, and although the rushes were fragrant and the room comfortably warm, Lasair could not sleep. The whole business would be concluded on the following day, and Tiarnach would collect his final commission. With a start, Lasair realized that after all this time, he had still not negotiated any payment. But then, what payment could possibly be sufficient?
The following morning found him refreshed, though he could not recall sleeping at all. He went outside, broke the layer of ice from the basin, and washed himself, exulting in the coolness.
He returned to the cottage. Morning light streamed in the window, casting a cheery glow over his materials. The moment he opened the book, however, the character of the light changed. It became sickly and pale; it accentuated the rough patches on the table and brought chapped blemished on his bare arms into sharp relief.
The final window was a strange one. It was a chunk of pure metal, gray and silver, with oily black flakes. As he looked at it, a momentary wave of dizziness passed through him. He shook it off, and began to write.
The shapes of the strange words had become familiar, but these Lasair struggled to understand. They spoke of the inner shape of things, of the core of being and the fire it contained.
He had finished half the page when the nausea began. It was deep and insistent, not like food sitting badly but a feeling of internal wrongness. Lasair did not pause to consider it, though. As he continued to write, he understood more and more. That inner fire was everywhere, and it could be set free. The smallest particle of the smallest grain of dust held the potential of total destruction, a world awash in fire.
He began to shake, partly from fear, and partly from whatever force was twisting his bowels into knots. On the next to last line, the silvery gray metal began to glow. As he completed the last line, it ignited.
The cottage erupted. In a wide circle, the grass on the hillside shriveled, blackened, and blew away. An inferno raged, and Lasair was at the center. He sensed, rather than saw, the column of superheated air that churned around him, rising in an immense column. Roiling clouds spread out above it, turning the sky brown and blocking out the sun.
This must not be, Lasair thought, and the symbols which had been hiding at the back of his mind sprang to the front. Water was first, and its power infused him. But the drops he threw at the monstrous cloud turned to vapor. Wind fared no better. The cloud was solid as stone compared to the feeble winds he sent.
Lasair called on Earth, but it didn’t answer. Surprised, he looked down to see that the ground where he had been standing was no longer there. Instead, he floated above an immense crater that had scooped away the hillside like the first bite from a loaf of bread.
Then, the cloud noticed him.
He had no other way of describing it. Before he had been riding out the maelstrom, but now it looked at him and saw. The winds that had done no more than blow past his hair now picked him up and tossed him like a leaf.
Oh God, he thought. Don’t let it free.
Lasair felt the flesh being stripped from his bones, felt each individual particle of himself torn away and set to the breeze, not ashes, but ashes of ashes, the remnant where there is nothing left to burn.
And then darkness came.
He awoke on his bed of rushes. His tongue felt oddly swollen, and there was a bitter, metallic taste in his mouth. A blanket was tucked up to his chin, but one arm lay outside of it, and he saw a crisscrossed network of burns on his skin. His fingernails were black as if painted from underneath.
Tiarnach sat at his side. In his lap was a red-wrapped parcel, bound up with leather straps. Through the pain, Lasair spoke.
“Is it safe?”
“It is contained.” The other man didn’t seem so large, now. He crouched next to Lasair, violet eyes swimming. Was that grief?
“I tried to destroy it,” Lasair said. He felt very sleepy. “That fire… it shouldn’t exist.”
“It is contained,” Tiarnach repeated. “And it will remain so, for many years.”
“Good.” His breath wheezed out in a long sigh.
“I’m sorry, Lasair.”
He placed his burned hand into Tiarnach’s massive one and squeezed, once. “Everything in this world dies.”
“But it can be renewed.”
He seemed to know that Lasair meant it as a question. “Yes, Brother. And it will be.”
Tiarnach waited then, for only a few hours. When he left the cottage, he bore two cloth-wrapped burdens. Even after all these years, he couldn’t decide which was the heaviest.