“Rev. Alcuin?” Morgan rapped tentatively at the door of the minister’s study. “Are you there? It’s me.”
No answer. He bent down and peered through the keyhole. He put his ear to the door. It sounded as if someone inside were whistling a softly lilting tune.
Again he knocked—once, twice, three times. Slippered footsteps approached from the other side. The knob turned, the stubborn door shuddered. It opened a crack. At last it swung wide, revealing a round, ruddy, bespectacled face crowned by a wide expanse of gleaming baldness.
“Morgan, my friend!” beamed Peter Alcuin, his eyes twinkling. “So glad to see you. Come in!”
“I hope this isn’t a bad time …”
“Not a bit! Working on my sermon, that’s all, and I’m in desperate need of a break. Find a chair. I’ll brew us a pot of tea.”
Morgan shuffled into the room while Rev. Alcuin bustled out to the adjoining kitchenette. Locating a chair was no problem, for the dimly lit study was packed with seats of various kinds: armchairs, desk chairs, couches, footstools, ottomans, Victorian settees. Finding a place to sit down was another matter, since nearly every available space, including the coffee table and the sewing cabinet Rev. Alcuin used as a writing table, was piled high with books and bundles of paper. For a moment Morgan stood doubtful in the midst of the jubilant clutter. At last he removed three volumes of Kittel’s Theologisches Worterbuch from a cane-backed rocker, stacked them on the floor, and threw himself down in the chair.
“Milk and sugar?” called the Reverend.
“Just sugar,” Morgan answered, idly leafing his way through an illustrated copy of Dante’s Inferno that lay in front of him on the coffee table. The pictures—Gustave Dore’s woodcuts—affected him strangely: so precise in their intricacy and detail, so repulsive in their graphic representation of the sufferings of the damned. He shuddered and wrinkled up his nose at one particularly bizarre engraving.
“Weird!” he grunted as Rev. Alcuin emerged with a steaming teapot and a rattling tray of cups and saucers. “These people all have their heads on backwards!”
Peter set the tray down atop a massive Oxford Dictionary and bent over the book. “Ah, yes. That’s the Fourth Bolgia. It’s a place in the lowest circle of Hell. Those are the sorcerers.”
Morgan glanced up at him.
“Their heads are twisted around like that because they’ve lost the ability to look forward. Into the future. Something they attempted to do all their lives, but always by means of the wrong methods. One of them, says Dante, is Michael Scot. The famous alchemist and astrologer.”
Morgan shifted uneasily in the rocker. He had an uncomfortable feeling that the Reverend’s observation was intended as something more than a commentary on the text. “I don’t do alchemy anymore,” he said. “Not since the beginning of summer.”
“Really?” Peter poured out the tea and handed him a cup. “Sugar’s on the tray. Sorry I haven’t anything else to offer you. Fresh out of scones.”
“I’m okay,” said Morgan, reaching for the sugar.
The Reverend loosened his clerical collar, cleared off a stack of newspapers from his favorite Windsor chair, and sat down facing Morgan across the coffee table. “Now then. I assume you have some reason for coming to see me this afternoon?”
Morgan nodded. Unzipping his backpack, he fished out the little green notebook and tossed it down on the table. “Have you ever seen this before?”
Peter Alcuin’s eyes opened wide. He set his teacup aside, picked up the notebook, and studied it closely.
“Where did you find it?”
“It’s my Dad’s, isn’t it?” Morgan had to struggle to keep a tremor out of his voice. “Can you tell me anything about it? Do you know what’s in it?”
Rev. Alcuin thumbed his way through the soiled and closely written pages. “Not necessarily. But I do recognize it. I’ve seen him jot things in this little diary many times. He used to take notes on everything. He’d often sit there—just where you’re sitting now—writing and writing all the while we talked. Aggravating when it didn’t suit my mood. But that was the way his mind worked.”
“It fell out of one of his old books while I was looking for something else. Some of the handwriting is pretty hard to make out. I was hoping you could help me decipher it.”
The Reverend looked doubtful. “Possibly. But there’s a chance we’re up against something tougher than just cramped or sloppy handwriting. Your father was in the habit of using several different forms of shorthand. Some were of his own devising, almost like secret codes. And of course he was familiar with all sorts of obscure languages and writing systems. There may be a great deal here that we simply can’t read.”
“But we can try, can’t we?”
Rev. Alcuin smiled. “Yes, Morgan. We can, and we will.”
There was a pause while the Reverend raised his cup to his lips and Morgan dipped into his backpack again.
“There’s also this,” he said, unfolding a large piece of paper and spreading it out on top of a stack of National Geographics. “It’s a drawing I made myself. What do you think?”
Rev. Alcuin leaned forward. He squinted through his spectacles and tilted his head to one side. “It’s quite good.”
“Thanks, but that’s not what I meant. Does this sword look familiar?”
The Reverend bent closer. “Well … it’s definitely northern European. Celtic or Teutonic. Ninth or tenth century, perhaps. Though there are some rather odd, extraneous elements. Foreign touches and anachronisms. And the pommel is quite large. Unusually large. Wielding a weapon like that in a fight would have been a bit awkward. But no, I’ve never seen this particular sword before.”
“I’m mainly interested in the inscriptions.”
“I see what you mean. Rather hard to make out, aren’t they?”
“In the drawing. That’s why I copied them over again here.” He unfolded another piece of paper.
“Mmm. Now this type of thing was right up your father’s alley.”
“Yours too, maybe?”
Peter laughed. “Your father and I shared a love of literature and history, Morgan, but when it came to languages I couldn’t keep up with him. I know some Latin and Greek and Hebrew, but that’s about my limit.”
“So you don’t recognize this writing?” Morgan pointed out the two strange inscriptions he’d copied from the sword’s crossguard:
(To be continued …)