Blake turned over one page, and then another and another, looking for a way into the story, but he couldn't find one. There were no words to guide him — only a series of black pages that led like a spiral staircase into the unknown. He let his mind follow them for a while, wondering where they would go, but they seemed to be leading nowhere, over and over again.
He felt disappointed an yet exhilarated too, as though he had embarked on a quest to find something. But what was he looking for? And how would he know when he found it? He was just an ordinary boy who wasn't particularly good at reading. And yet he felt certain that the more he explored, the deeper he delved, the more likely he was to uncover something — some secret encoded in the paper perhaps — that would lead to an even greater discovery.
But how, he wondered, could anyone read a blank book?
In the end, he closed the volume and returned it to the shelf, little realizing that the story was already writing itself…
Johann Fust arrived on a cold winter's night. While most of the city slept under a mantle of softly falling snow, he bribed the sentries to open the Iron Gate near the river and advanced, unobserved, through the streets. A young man hauled a heavy sledge behind him.
Even in the white-whirling darkness, Fust could see the bulk of the cathedral looming over the other buildings inside the city walls. The turrets, made from rich red sandstone, were an attractive rose color by day, but by night they formed a vast mountain range, steeped in shadow. He glanced at them through narrowed eyes, but kept his distance, sticking to the walls of the half-timbered houses in which the noble patricians lived.
All around him were heaped-up smells: the fug of wood smoke, the tang of straw, not to mention the stink of human sewage, which even the snow could not mask. Occasionally, pigs squealed as they wrestled for warmth in their pens, but otherwise there was just the slithering sledge behind him.
Fust waited for the boy to catch up.
Peter, dogging his master's heels, paused to wipe the snow from his brow and mitten his hands under his armpits. He was so cold! Fust might have the luxury of a full-length cloak, thick gloves and laced boots, but his own leggings were too thin to withstand the severe pinch of winter. Worse, his low-cut shoes were no match for the mounting snowdrifts, which sent ice crystals avalanching down to his ankles. All he wanted was a fire to warm his body, food to fill his belly and a bed to rest his weary limbs.
He gazed at the wooden signs hanging above him in the gloom — the stuffed pigs and wheat sheaves suggestive of inns and bakeries — and longed for the journey to be over.
'Not far now, Peter,' said Fust, as if reading his thoughts. 'We're almost there.'
Letting out a long silver breath, Fust cut across an empty square towards the lanes and alleys that crisscrossed behind the market like fractured glass. His footsteps scrunched the snow.
Peter did not move. Each of his muscles was mulishly reliving the agonies of the trip. From Paris, they had tramped to Strasbourg and then, not finding what they sought, headed northeast towards Mainz, on the banks of the River Rhine: a journey of almost four hundred miles. They had avoided the obvious river routes — the vineyards on the surrounding hills were too exposed, the towns too meddlesome — but kept to the hooded woods and vales, which were nearly impassable this winter. Peter did not believe in spooks or specters, both of which were rumored to dwell off the beaten track, but he was disturbed by Fust's constant need for secrecy. What was the man not telling him?
Peter cupped his hands over his mouth and blew into them, hoping to ignite a spark of feeling in his fingertips. Surely they were meant for finer things than this! Little more than a month ago, he had been studying at one of the most distinguished libraries in Europe — the Library of St. Victor in Paris — where he was learning the art of calligraphy from the best scribes. He had developed a fine, graceful penmanship and was proud of his achievements, copying missals and other religious books by hand. He like to think that he wielded the quill with the finesse of a sword — drawing ink, if not blood.
But then Fust had arrived, changing everything.
A ghost from the past, Fust had promised Peter riches, power — anything — so long as he fulfilled a few simple tasks and chose to follow. He even pledged the hand of his daughter, Christina, in marriage in return for the boy's allegiance. How could he refuse?
Peter spat on the ground and scowled into the night, rubbing the spots where the blisters had formed on his hands. A rope had been looped around his waist and secured to the sledge behind him, which, like an ox, he had to drag through the snow. It was his yoke, his burden; his part of the agreement. Peter Schoeffer of Gernsheim was no better than a beast.
As if the provisions and blankets weren't heavy enough, there was a formidable chest to lug around. Loathsome monsters were engraved on its wooden panels, scaring away even his inquisitive fingers. Still more frightening were the two snakes, cast from black metal, which twisted round the lip of the lid. Their heads were entwined so as to form an ingenious lock. One false touch false touch, Fust warned, and their fangs would release a poison so venomous it would paralyze him forever.
Peter shuddered. Could this be true?
Fust spoke mostly in riddles, partly to bewitch the boy, but also to safeguard his secret. Inside the chest was a material so rare, so exquisite, he suggested, that it would bring the whole world within the scope of their hands. It held an eye to the future and a tongue to the past. All they required was a means of harnessing it, a way of reading its prophecies in the form of a living, breathing book. That was why Fust needed Peter…
Peter shook his head. Now they were nearing the end of one journey, and beginning the next, he was having second thoughts. What if this book was a mistake — like Eve's decision to bite the apple, an attempt to gain forbidden knowledge? What if he was putting his very soul in jeopardy? Servitude in life was one thing, but eternal damnation another!
Sensing Fust waiting for him by the mouth of one of the alleys, Peter muttered an oath, strained against his harness and began once more to drag the heavy load behind him. He grunted like a workhorse. There was no turning back. His choice had been made.
The snow, falling more thickly now, swiftly and silently filled their tracks so that no one rising early the next morning could tell from which direction they had come or where they had gone. Instead, the citizens of Mainz opened their eyes to a pristine world: a glittering, snow-covered city that hid the mounds of dung from view. They were too dazzled by the spectacle, the surface of things, to sense the peril that had arrived under the cover of darkness.
Only I knew differently…