tagSci-Fi & FantasyAn Infernal Folio

An Infernal Folio


I couldn't quite decide why the book disturbed me so. The hand was obviously late fifteenth-century, pre-humanistic, in a small even bastarda, clearly from the southern German-speaking lands. The rubrication was careful, faded but still red, the vellum pliable, and the binding, although not original, most likely dated from only a century or so after the pages were inscribed.

I turned carefully to the colophon, again. If I had to guess, the codex would have to have come from the monastic scriptorium at Sponheim. The lettering in the colophon was slightly irregular, in the same hand as the main text, but a bit less deliberate, almost hurried, although scribal monks never hurried, even at the end of a quire.

'What do you think, Sophia?'

Ira's voice startled me, I had not heard him approach. My immersion into the text had been total.

The archival room was quite airless on purpose, the natural light abundant but indirect. Window glare was muted to avoid even slight deterioration to the valuable university documents housed here.

He looked down at me, his grey eyes questioning. His suit, the colour of strongly-brewed tea, was pressed, professional.

'An intriguing work. Are the lab tests returned yet?' I asked.

'Right. All good. Ink and vellum both appropriate, late 1400s, it is not a forgery. The binding is from Basel. Murdoch has found that for at least a short time the work was part of Rudolph's library.'

I nodded, that made sense. More than one odd item had been housed on the vast shelves of that princely library in Prague at the turn of the 16th century before conflict came and hundreds of volumes were scattered across the continent.

The folio's ostensible content was not unusual for the times, a polemic on how to live the 'good life' in the service of God. The author went by the name 'Abelartus' but I hadn't found anything else written by him. So the work was a 'one-off' unless we could trace his other writings somehow. It was not an alchemical text but nearly as cryptic, allusions made to various antecedents of murky origin, and it included passages that could be read erotically, or even heretically.

It was almost as if to fully understand the narrative one needed a key -- a separate lexicon or index -- in order to translate or cross-reference ambiguous words. There were paragraphs that hinted at secrecy. The Latin was serviceable, if somewhat stilted. Still, it was a remarkable text.

'Will the university syndicate proceed with a purchase? The cost will be well north of even the rarest of the Peterborough folios.'

Ira shrugged. 'All we can do is make a recommendation.'

After I had closed the codex's calf-skin covers and returned it to its padded 'visiting manuscript under review' drawer, locking it safely for the night, I slipped my thin, white cotton archival gloves off, one finger at a time. Ira eyed me intently.

'It always seems a crime when your hands are gloved, Sophie. Such delicate fingers, fine-boned digits of discernment. I hate to see it when you first put them on, even if wearing them means protecting antiquities.'

I was aware of his eyes not only on my hands but the curves of my snug blue dress, professional but jarringly feminine in this male bastion of erudition.

I endured a fair amount of verbal commentary, bordering on the salacious, from Ira and several of the other university librarians and archivists. I was a small-waisted, thirty-two year old, single woman working with a group of middle-age or older men, all brilliant in their own way, but hopelessly myopic in others, some of them stunningly old-fashioned. My unquestioned expertise was my only defence.

Ira was married. I knew his words were a minor foray into the daring, likely just a reminder to himself of the dashing young scholar he had perhaps once been. Unlike some of the others, whatever he said would never become more than mildly annoying.

'Might you be up for a stop at The Boar after work? I should like to hear more of your thoughts on the manuscript. I can run you home afterwards.' His fingers absently smoothed a section of his thinning blond hair.

I nodded. This was a semi-regular offer, one I often enjoyed.

We closed up the room and walked together to the car park. Ira's Peugeot took us out Huntingdon Road, and we took a table in the dark-panelled quietude of The Boar's back room. A couple in their forties were busy arguing critical theory, I recognised one of them from Pembroke, while two other solo men read silently from their books at corner tables while nursing their pint glasses. The Boar was far enough from town not to be overrun with summer travellers yet still attract a vigorously academic crowd.

I had a mild. Ira's tastes always ran to whatever was fresh from the cask that week, this time a Suffolk ale I had never heard of.

'Who owns the manuscript?' I asked.

'I don't know. I do know that we are the last stop before Oxford, its next destination on the circuit. If we don't make a proper offer I am sure they will open deep pockets there. Murdoch stalled for a few more days, so there is a little time.'

'There is something odd about the colophon.'


'The hand is slightly altered, the same as for the main text but not one I recognise or have been able to match in the scribe's Index. It is almost as if the manuscript was rushed at the end, to finish it before some catastrophe occurred or to hustle it off quickly somewhere.'

'You are sure it is from Sponheim?'

'All the evidence points that way. It seems quite likely to have been copied during the abbotship of Trithemius.'

Ira inhaled. 'His Steganographia still casts ripples throughout the book world.'

'Yes, quite.'

Sponheim's scribal output under Trithemius all was of course post-printing press, hand-copied and defiantly archaic, but the abbot had unusual tastes to say the least. He had assembled an impressive library, manuscripts as well as printed codexes, often dabbling in works that veered towards the heretical. Steganographia was his major work, a three-volume occult treatise which had mystified many a Renaissance scholar.

We talked for half an hour. Ira's observations were in concert with mine. We spoke of the various central European hands, Sponheim's eccentricities and importance. The uniqueness of this particular text. We hoped the syndicate would proceed with a purchase.

His mobile rang suddenly. He glanced at the screen and then answered hurriedly.

'Angela. Everything okay?' His brow furrowed. 'You're not sure? ... Yes, yes. ... We'll have to have it looked at, of course. I'm out Huntingdon Road, I can be there in fifteen minutes. ... Yes, right. ... Don't worry, it will be fine.'

He rang off with a concerned face. 'William has hurt himself on the football pitch. An ankle. Hopefully just a sprain but badly enough we'll need to stop at the clinic. Angela's occupied at home so I am the ambulance tonight.'

'Sorry, I'll have to abandon you. Are you alright getting home?'

'Yes, of course. I usually take the Six all the way to Oakington anyway, just a short walk from there.'

'Do hurry on, I hope all turns out well.' I patted his arm.

'You are welcome to the rest', he pointed at his half-full pint glass. And then he dashed off.

I opened my book, happy enough to read for a stretch while I finished my glass, then Ira's. I would sample something new without the drawback of having had to expend mental energy in making a choice.

A figure approached my table.

'Forgive me, I managed to overhear you discussing paleographical matters.'

I looked up. A tall man with deep lines on his forehead and cheeks, dark eyebrows and an intelligent face looked down at me. The smile was polite, inquiring.

'I have similar interests', he said and presented his card. His English was precise, confident, but non-native.

'Phausto Sabazios' it said in both Roman and Greek letters. The university affiliation was entirely in Greek. Luckily, although not my speciality, I knew that orthography well enough to recognise the location as Thessaloniki.

'I specialise in the late fifteenth century, the incanabula era. For some reason there was an explosion in manuscript production then, even as Gutenberg's invention had arrived and was poised to upend the world's system of scholarly communication.' He smiled wanly. 'I have always been a bit late to the table.'

I laughed, charmed at his introduction. 'You probably heard us discussing a manuscript we are thinking of buying. The university, that is. It fits within your precious time frame.'

I described the text, its peculiarities, and his interest grew when I outlined its provenance. His eyes narrowed.

'Perhaps I shouldn't intrude', he said softly when I had finished. 'In fact I have an interest in this manuscript myself.'

'You seek to buy it yourself?' He looked well enough off but hardly capable of such a monumental purchase. But one never knew.

'No, no', he said. 'Quite the opposite, I am representing the owner.'

I was now all ears.

I examined him more closely. He was tall, lean, somewhere between forty and sixty years in age. His clean-shaven, olive-hued face was lined and weather-beaten, like a sailor's, his features angular, with long ears and nose. For some reason I thought of Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner. His hair had once been quite dark but now was streaked with silver. His suit was finely cut, his shoes polished.

'Would you mind if I join you?' he asked.

I was fine with the company, particularly if he could further my understandings.

My hopes were dashed quickly, however. He would not discuss the manuscript further.

My questions were politely but firmly parried.

'Since you are not the university official who will be providing an offer, I suggest you note your questions and pass them on to the one, or ones, who will be.'

'But my role, even if only advisory, has importance to the decision', I countered. 'The more I know about your manuscript, the more likely you may have a favourable outcome.'

He smiled, in the thin confident way that I would come to recognise over the evening.

'Of course, yet it is the owner's preference to discuss the manuscript only with those making an offer.'

'Who is the owner?'

'I am not at liberty to divulge his identity.'

There was no way around it all. It did not require acute powers of perception for him to notice my disappointment, even irritation.

'Perhaps we might discuss other, related matters? Your own paleographical interests?' His voice was soft, encouraging.

The next hour flew by: miniscules, italics, calf-skin bindings, French versus Venetian paper. I finished my mild, then Ira's half-empty pint, and found another brought to the table. My companion sipped his ale.

Thinking back, the conversation, while not one-sided, was of a refractive nature. It became obvious early on that Phausto's own knowledge was immense, his expertise extensive, yet I found that I was answering more of his questions than the ones I posed to him.

I steered the conversation to Sponheim, however.

How strangely he stared! I was aware of his dark eyes boring into me. He seemed to divine my thoughts before they escaped my lips.

'You are especially taken with Sponheim?'

'Yes', I went on breathlessly. 'Such remarkable production from an isolated monastery! And Trithemius' interests were so...'

'Hermetical?' he offered.

'Yes, indeed. Secret writing, hidden language, hints of dark and mysterious practices.'

'You are certainly aware that medieval monks often did not feel overly compelled to adhere to their monkly vows?'

'Of course', I laughed. 'Even to those who most enjoy observing them, rules can grow oppressive, even superfluous. But magical practices in a monastery? Ciphers and hints of deviance?'

His eyes narrowed. 'Even a certain amount of sexual deviance?'

This made me pause. 'I am not aware of that. Most of the texts I know from Sponheim are more oriented towards the occult.'

'You consider the two categories to be mutually exclusive?'

The look he gave me was disorienting. Daring me to go down a different path.

'I see I will need to examine what we have from Sponheim in the archives more thoroughly', I answered, a bit defensively.

'Trithemius would be impressed with your diligence.'

He looked at me deeply.

'You seem quite familiar with the work of Trithemius.' I gazed at him. 'Almost like you knew him...'

He did not answer but met my own eyes.

'How old are you?' I suddenly asked. Perhaps one too many pints had gone down my throat. This was far too personal a query for me to make under the circumstances.

He looked at me keenly. 'If I told you, you wouldn't believe me', he finally said.

I was struck by the timeless aspect of his presence. Eyes ancient, hooded. Lines deep on his face. Silver scattered in his thick and once dark hair. Yet his body was smooth and graceful. Those long careful fingers cradling his pint glass could have been those of a cultured scribe of perhaps thirty years of age. I shivered.

I didn't ask again.

I finally had to have something to eat and he joined me, the simple, thick-crusted sandwiches of The Boar with some chips that we shared.

We finished and looked at each other.

'May I offer you a ride? My car is just outside.'

I weighed this carefully. I had spoken a bit too long, a bit too passionately about my work. I was vaguely unsettled, yet could not distrust him.

'I am not that far away. But you are staying in town? This will take you in the opposite direction.'

He nodded. 'Traffic here does not seem oppressive after the commute hours. Please let me get you home.'

Outside a light drizzle had begun to fall. He had a dark blue Aston. I hadn't been in this luxurious a car in a long time. He held the door as I stepped from the kerb into its leather-cocooned embrace.

He drove quickly, confidently. I barely had to provide directions, he seemed to know, perhaps from my body language, where transitions would occur. Once I noted that he had flicked the correct turn indicator before I had even pointed out which street was needed. I shot him a quick glance.

'Are you a collector yourself?' he asked as we pulled up in front of my cottage. He meant manuscripts of course.

I said that I had one or two of what might be considered interesting items.

'A Dover!' His eyebrows arched when I told him about my psalter from the Priory.

'St. Athanius?'

I nodded.

'I have never seen one.'

Of course he had to have a look. I invited him in, my second thoughts dismissed rather more easily than is usual with me.

I was aware of how modest my place must appear to him as I turned on lamps and offered him a seat on my aged sofa.

He was suitably impressed with the slender quarto. He looked at it deliberately, with the care and respect I have come to recognise in those who handle rare manuscripts on a regular basis.

He held a page up to the light. 'Is this a typical example of English vellum?'

I assented and we discussed text production in England in the fourteenth century. Quite to my surprise, my large tabby Leibniz circled Phausto's legs and even curled up next to him on the sofa. This fastidious feline avoids almost any guest and rarely acted with any familiarity towards a stranger.

'You naturally noticed that a quire is missing, towards the middle. That is the only reason I could have afforded it', I added. 'If complete its value would have quite exceeded my means.'

I found his interest and knowledge enchanting. I talked 'shop' with my colleagues at work and the various archivists in the colleges, but his observations from a differently grounded perspective provided a welcome contrast to my normal discussions.

We got to a stopping point. I did not want our conversation to come to an end yet.

'Some sherry?' I asked impulsively.

I poured us each two fingers worth in my special Portuguese glasses.

He admired the vintage, told me a few things about its terroir and production I did not know. Was there any area outside the scope of his intellect?

He had noticed my chess set on a table. 'You play?' His dark eyebrows arched.



'Well enough', I laughed.

He looked at me and gestured at the board. 'Might we indulge in a game?'

'Very good', I said. As my guest, he chose white.

He did not begin aggressively, against my expectations. He utilised a modified Catalan opening, a flanking attack that meant I could not employ my preferred Sicilian defence.

I felt a sudden thrill playing him. I watched his long careful fingers move each piece. When his dark eyes looked up at me after each move, he sought to gauge my reaction. A little ripple of excitement surged through me as we continued.

We played almost wordlessly. I found, to my surprise, that my nipples had grown erect. I looked down at the front of my dress, but of course nothing showed from the outside.

His face was grave, focussed, intent on the game in front of us.

The game! If only it was just a game.

We advanced the pieces cautiously around the board. I was reminded again of how much chess is almost like a dance, a dangerous dance of wills and intellects.

I felt a tingling from my insides, my cheeks growing warmer. I glanced at him, wondering if he noticed but his attention was on the board.

We had played for perhaps twenty minutes or so. Just when I thought I had found a pattern in his approach, he would make a move that left me back-footed.

He launched a sudden, attacking feint.

I countered easily, taking a bishop. His face betrayed no sign of distress. We each sipped sherry, but otherwise did not speak.

I foolishly gave away a knight, then found myself backed into a tight spot.

Several minutes went by while I stared at the board. He nursed his sherry, but then spilled some with an uncharacteristically awkward motion of his glass. Alarmed, he looked down at the amber spreading dots on the table.

'I am terribly sorry.'

'That's alright', I answered and rose to get a cloth from the kitchen. I leaned over the counter for a tea towel, but suddenly felt him press up against me.

'I have enjoyed your company', he whispered in my ear.

I sought to extract myself but his hips pressed into me, pinning me to the counter. I could feel his erection against my bottom through several layers of clothing.

'Please', I began but found I could say no more. I opened my mouth but no words emerged. His own mouth was on the soft folds of my neck, after brushing my hair away, a rough kiss, the feel of nicking teeth.

'Check!' he hissed into my ear. He was offering me a chance to escape. He would give me an extra move. All was not decided yet. But my body-instincts ran counter to this. 'No, pray continue! Make it checkmate!' was my rueful, internal, unspoken response.

My groin was far more excited than could have been possible. His hips pressed my mons onto the counter, the pressure was arousing.

A quick movement with his hand and my dress was hoisted up, my knickers moved to the side. A fumbling at his belt and then I felt the tip of his organ press against me. It was hot, moist, intrusive. He nudged my legs apart.

He was inside me before I had time to react. I was astonished at how slippery I was. My vulvar lips were alive, their gratitude at his entry surprising given both the intensity and suddenness of it all.

His hip movements were not the normal ones I had encountered before. He seemed to glide in and out, his organ sliding at a peculiar angle. My mons was flattened onto the low counter, his hands holding my wrists away and out. I was quite immobilised.

His breath was hot and damp on my neck. His teeth bit down, not enough to hurt, but enough to notice. My breasts were roughly squashed down onto the counter while his hips rocked into me. I felt my channel expand to meet his penis, then grip back, squeezing on each rearward motion as he withdrew, ready for a new thrust.

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