It was in the year of our Lord, 800, when the Viking invasions had begun, and we feared for our lives. We had set to writing the fourth Book of the Evangelists, the Book of John. It was to commemorate the death of our dear Saint Columba by our Abbot Father Cellarch, who says our great abbey was named when our founder first laid eyes on our island and exclaimed "I see her! The island of John," and thus was founded the Abbey of Iona more than two hundred years ago. The books of Saints Matthew, Mark and Luke, are now near completion, and thus we begin with the image of John. Together, the Book of the Gospels will be a gift to our sister abbey at Durrow, in the hands of our Bishop Ailebe. May God help us in our glory to Him.
We six who are the writers and illustrators set long ago to work together in diligence and love for our Lord. Brother Fiotan colored and gold leafed, while Brother Ronant, whose mother was a Pict, drew the beautiful designs. I and my fellow scribe Brother Ion, the Alexandrian, wrote the text in our fine hands, which were identical. Brothers Eogan and Enon, both from our sister abbey in Durrow, were the parchment makers who also mixed the inks. When pressed, they too painted illustrations for the small works. I, Aedan, am master of works and writer of letters, and designer. It was also assigned I be the chronicler of our works. By our Lord Jesus Christ, we give you His word. Amen.
* * *
It was the leeward of Springtime, on the dawn of a new year, and a new century, entering the month of the Resurrection, that woke on that early gray morning. After Matins prayers, while the brothers were finishing their breakfast of porridge and milk, as was my habit, I was preparing the scriptorium for our day's work. This usually meant restarting the dormant fire in the central pit, which I did today, satisfied that it was not too smoky, watching the smoke curl up into the roof timbers, escaping through the small hole there. A cheerful glow soon dispelled the darkness, and first light came filtering through the thick windows. The usual inks were placed in their horns on the writing tables by the small windows, there were six of them, and the freshly cut goose quills laid by each one. The pigment inks were then likewise distributed with their brushes, each to their work station, and the parchment cases were taken down from the rafters, where they stayed dry and safe from vermin. The room filled with warmth and all seemed to my satisfaction. Now came that moment I daily cherished, when I open the page on which I am working, thanking God and asking for His help in that I am to do His will today.
"Good morning sweet Brother."
It was the voice of Ion, as he first entered the scriptorium. Then followed by Ronant, who in his usual cheerful manner greeted us with a great smile.
"Peace to you in our Lord, my brothers," I answered.
"Enon will bring your porridge shortly," Ronant let me know.
Ion walked in his usual calm manner to his work table, looking out the window into the cool light, the water of the sound laying still and gray beyond.
"We start a new book today," he mused aloud, "it is fitting for Pasqua."
Ion sometimes used his native word for Easter, since his family came to Ireland from Alexandria many years ago. His face was darker than ours, and so his humor, but he loved us in the same we love him, as brothers in Christ.
"The Resurrection is most fitting," answered him Ronant, "for new beginnings. So much already done, and still so much to do, when does it end?" He looked up smiling. "I hope my eyes do not fail by the time we are done, or what good is a blind scribe?"
"Your images are gifts, Ronant, and may you always have them for us." As I said this, Enon entered holding a large cup for me, with a thick wooden spoon standing in it. "Ah, my breakfast! After Matins, I thought I would faint from hunger."
Through the window I could see two skiffs just landed from Mull. This was a day of pilgrims coming to our shore, to do penance, pray, and be blessed, or be healed. For this they usually pledged gifts, for which the Abbey is most grateful. The Abbot and a small welcome group were already at the landing. More than a dozen people were getting off, all dressed in the habit of penance, white smocks over their clothes.
"They will be here momentarily," I announced, "after they stop at the chapel."
"This gives us just enough time to appear busy," added Ronant.
"And we must look good," spoke Ion, almost under his breath.
Enon went over to the window and gave off a low whistle, "There is a king amongst them."
I went over and too could see deference, both from the monks and penitents, as well as from Cellarch. The Abbot paid special attention in the manner required of great personages, so we knew this was likely a king, or high lord. Just then Fiotan walked in from the door that leads to the Abbey chapel, which is adjacent to our scriptorium, with his usual sleepy look. His large nose bobbed as if he were to sneeze, which he did, and then he walked over to his table.
"Good morning, sweet Brother," I offered.
"Good morning Aedan, but I still feel poorly. My nose is itching, though I do not feel to have a cold. But one must not complain, if it is God's will." He then looked up and smiled, which did not make him look better. Fiotan was not cheerful this morning, but he was amiable just the same. He must have a cold.
"We must set up quickly, Fiotan, all, and put on a show of hard work."
All knew this and were already spreading the parchments they were working on before them, pressing them down and securing the corners so that they would not slide, and then inked their brushes or quills.
The words began "In principio bid erat verbum," and so began the Book of John. We worked like this in silence, only the sounds outside the door and gulls flying over the channel calling their high pitched cries. My quill carefully formed each letter, which gave me an inner tranquility at once. This I could do for hours without pain or thought. Ion was lettering the last page of Lucas, and Ronant was working on his design of the lead page, where was found the likeness of John. Fiotan set up and added color to the letters marked on the last pages of Luke. We quickly fell into our patterns of work, as we had been working on this manuscript these past three years. The pilgrims were coming through the chapel door.
"And in here, my dear Blachmac, is where we are doing our most important work. These brothers are crafting the manuscript dedicated to the two hundredth anniversary of our founder being called to the Lord."
King Blachmac stood tall and bear chested amongst the small throng of pilgrims, his strong arms filling out the white smock he wore. Though we were all bearded, his was rich and red, framing a large mouth set with strong teeth. He was a northerner, we could tell. The other pilgrims filed into our scriptorium behind him.
"May I see your work, Brother?"
He came over to Ronant's table and examined his rudimentary drawing, still devoid of color.
"It will be finished in the style of these pages, my Lord", Ronant held up some finished folios.
"Such fine lines, such color. It is beautiful." He looked over at the rest of us, the Abbot hovering close to him, solicitous and slightly bowed. "I could commission a book like it for my kingdom, to celebrate our entry into Christ, my good Abbot. But we are plagued still by the heathen barbarians in our land, so it would be a shame to have it fall into their barbarous hands. The devil take... oh, I beg your forgiveness, my Lord."
Cellarch raised his hand to signify no offense was taken.
"Ach, the heathens are a plague, so we hear. Their long ships steal in the night and attack at dawn."