A Flick of the Quill

In days long ago when monks in monasteries were the only ones able to read or write, and not even all of them, there lived a young monk called Theo in a great, grand monastery.

Theo had the job of copying line after line from old books to make new books, using a pot of ink and a pen made from a quill taken from the feathers of a large bird. Day after day he worked, from the icy hours before dawn until the last of the sun’s rays had left his workshop. If he had a mistake, which was quite often because copying was such dull work and he was such a poor speller, Brother Paul would rap him on the knuckles with a ruler and he would have to scratch off the dried ink with a rough stone and do it all over again.

One day he had been labouring for hours, cold and hungry, because he had left out a line of copying by accident and Brother Paul was making him re-write the whole page. He had had nothing to eat since breakfast, and the cold was making him sleepy. His head drooped lower and lower over the page and for a moment he actually nodded off to sleep. When he opened his eyes, there was a magnificent yellow pear on his desk.

He seized it and devoured it at once, thinking that perhaps Brother Paul had left it for him, although he had never done anything like this before. Then he caught sight of something. By the tip of his quill there was a small mistake he had made in his copying as he was falling asleep. Instead of writing ‘a pair of sandals’, he had written ‘a pear of sandals’. It was a small mistake, a mere flick of the quill, but when he thought about the pear he had just eaten, it seemed…odd. He scratched out the mistake he had made and went on as usual.

Towards evening, when the icy wind was blowing through the gaps in the windows, and his fingers were so cold that he could hardly hold his pen, he felt a sudden warmth across his back and shoulders. Someone had dropped a thick woollen blanket over him as he worked. He looked up, smiling gratefully, but there was no-one there. Thinking about it, he hadn’t heard anyone come into the room either. He looked down at his work and noticed something…odd. He had made another mistake in his copying. Instead of writing ‘a wooden cover’, he had written ‘a woollen cover.’

He didn’t know what to think, but he took his stone and hurriedly rubbed out the mistake. As he did, the blanket on his shoulders disappeared, as if it had never been there. Theo looked closely at his pen, the ink, and the parchment, but they were all perfectly ordinary. He told himself he must have fallen asleep for a moment and dreamt it. He put away his tools and went to bed.

The next day, he was sharpening his quill with his penknife, and idly trying out its point by making a few letters on a piece of scrap parchment. His mind was on his stomach, as it was approaching the hour for lunch, and he sketched a few shapes dreamily, some bananas, eggplants, a fat watermelon, baskets of bread and a huge cake covered in strawberries. He went on sketching at random, until he heard a commotion downstairs, trampling feet and shouting voices. Brother Paul came up the stairs, shaking his head in amazement. “The most extraordinary thing!” he said. “The cook had prepared turnip soup as usual for lunch, and placed it on the table, but when we arrived, the soup was gone, and there was bread and cake, and watermelon and bananas, and goodness knows what else, spread out on the table.”

Theo was astounded. “Where did all this food come from?” he asked.

“No-one had any idea, but it didn’t stop them from eating every scrap,” Brother Paul answered. “I managed to save this for you.” He put a crushed strawberry on Theo’s desk.

Theo decided that whatever was happening was never going to happen again. It was far too dangerous. From then on, he took infinite care to write without making a single mistake. Brother Paul was very pleased with his work and even allowed him an extra stick on the fire in the workshop now and then. As days went by, Theo almost managed to convince himself that he had been dreaming. But then one evening he heard the thrumming of heavy wings and darkness filled the sky. He looked at the words he had been copying and saw, ‘Legend has it that once a vast flock of huge flying creatures flew over the village, killing many people and carrying off men and women and children in their dreadful claws.’ Theo jumped to his feet and ran to the window. Dozens of enormous, terrifying creatures were flying above the village. He could hear the pitiful screams of villagers as they were seized in their claws.

Theo rushed back to his desk to erase the words he had written, only to find that his stone was missing! He covered his ears to try to block out the sounds of desperate cries and then a thought came to him. He picked up his pen and began to write. ‘The monks from the monastery brought buckets of oil and threw it over the beasts, and then set them on fire with burning arrows. The creatures flew away, never to be seen again, and the villagers were saved.’ Theo lifted his head and heard the great doors of the monastery opening, and then the sounds of arrows flying through the air, and the screeches of the flying beasts as they flew away.

He put down his pen carefully and went to the window. Outside there were empty buckets of oil, and quivers of arrows lying about, and the monks were helping the villagers, and bandaging the injured. The last of the flying creatures was disappearing over the hills, shrieking as it went. It was all just as Theo had written.

That night, he lay awake for hours, thinking about what had happened, what sort of power he had in his hands, and what he should do with it. The next morning, long before anyone else was stirring in the monastery, he took his pen, his bottle of ink, and some sheets of parchment and slipped out through the back door and went out into the world.

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