Pity Not the Fool

The story begins twelve hundred years earlier with Vikings concealing a mystical trunk to keep it out of the hands of Frankish heretics. (See “Fool’s Cap”)

By the time Ernest Woerth reached the lab, the trunk had arrived, and Lisa Svanetti was signing the paperwork. She was a graduate student in medieval history and an expert in Nordic runes. She had read his paper on the Jestercians and come to Nimueh College to work with him.

“Excellent,” Ernest said, checking the trunk’s seal and general condition. The oak trunk was twenty inches long by twelve high and wide, and bound with brass hinges and fittings. The boards were caulked and seams sealed with pitch and pine tar, like ship hulls in the ninth century.

“Is this the Dorestad cache?” Lisa asked, pointing to the tar-stained seal. When Ernest nodded, she squealed and danced around in a circle.

“They should make for an excellent thesis,” Ernest said. “I want you to take the lead.” She jumped to embrace him. “But before we celebrate, let’s make sure there is something inside.” He went to the tool cabinet for a chisel.

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While they talked, a young man came in, plopped himself in a side chair, and swung his legs over the arm. “Hi, Ernie. I see my project arrived. Uncle Scott said you needed some help.”

“Indeed, I do, Bryton,” Ernest said, drawing a thin smile and regretting his promise to Dean Gilders to keep his nephew Bryton busy.

Bryton scratched his patchy beard then pulled the smiley-face emblem on his tee shirt to free it from sticking to his body. The smell of fried potatoes and stale sweat wafted into the room. Ernest glanced at the unopened trunk then at Lisa, who covered her mouth with her hand.

“Hi, Bryton.” Lisa nodded in the young man’s direction. I’m Lisa Svanetti, Dr. Woerth’s graduate intern.”

“Nice to meet you, Liz,” he raised his hand as if to wave then ran fingers through his matted hair. “Yer kinda like the formal type, huh? And real booky.”

“Yup. And you’re a quick one.”

“My mother always told me that.”

“Enough chat,” Ernest said. “Time to get to work.”

“Sure ‘nuff, Ernie.” Bryton slid one leg off the chair arm and shifted his body to watch. While Lisa softened the pine tar with linseed oil, Ernest worked the seals. The last one parted a half-hour later.

“You superstitious?” Ernest asked Lisa.

“About the curse? I’ll risk it to be the first to lift the trunk lid,” she said, and Ernest nodded for her to go ahead.

The stale odor of desiccation overwhelmed the smell of French fries coming off Bryton. Lisa inhaled deeply, and Ernest motioned her to continue. Inside she found six scrolls, each individually bound with a leather strap and sequestered in its own pigeonhole.

“Those the doorstops?” Bryton asked, leaning forward without shifting a leg. “They look like rolls of old newspaper.”

“The Dorestad Scrolls,” Ernest corrected, turning one in his hand. “Sheepskin vellum, ninth century. Paper didn’t reach northern Europe until the 13th century. The Franks never found them when they overran Dorestad—probably the last Viking stronghold in Germany.”

Lisa transferred the scrolls to plastic sleeves then prepared the lab table to re-hydrate, unroll, flatten, and repair them: spatulas, surgical knives, magnifiers, ink, brushes, fountain pens, oil, leather preservative, sprayer, steamer, document spreader, all tucked in bins along the lab table.

Bryton stretched his body across the arms of the chair and yawned. “You know, dudes, I’m not big into crafts. Think I’ll get a bite in the cafeteria. No rules against lunch, right?”

“None at all, Bryton,” Ernest said without looking up. “Go ahead. We’ll be along.”

Lisa lifted the rough-hewn trunk to clear space then set it back to complete her examination. “They wanted this watertight. It’s makeshift but solid. Look at the hinges.” She lifted the lid wide, and Ernest brought headlamp magnifiers for the two of them. Feeling inside, Lisa detected another seal and tapped the lid. Hollow.

Ernest reached for the chisel. “Looks like there’s something the Jester didn’t want found—a treasure perhaps,” he said. Lisa’s eyebrows arched. The panel came free in one minute, and with it, a stack of wedges, alternating red and green and sown along the edges.

“Leather?” Lisa wondered aloud as she turned the stack under the light. “

“Give it a little Neatsfoot oil and let it soak.” Ernest checked his watch. “We missed the cafeteria.”

“I’m too excited to eat. All I can think about is reading the scrolls.”

“Very well,” Ernest said. “I’ll help you unroll them. Tomorrow we can work on the leather stack.”

“What do you think it is?”

“What I hope it is.” His eyes shifted wistfully upward. “According to legend, the Jester gave her apprentice mage a device to help him master the scrolls, a fool’s cap. It designated his training status and bestowed immunity from punishment should he screw something up in his training.”

“Like Mickey Mouse’s cap in ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ in Fantasia?” Ernest nodded.

Lisa cocked her head and asked, “So why do we only think of fool’s caps being worn by court comedians?”

“When the Franks and later medieval kingdoms couldn’t get any of the Jestercian incantations to work, they made fun of them. The fool’s cap became a sign of derision, the same as the Jester. They wore replicas to mock Vikings and Druids. We might have found the original fool’s cap or one of the replicas—or it might just be a leather purse.”

Will the Fool’s Cap be a blessing or a curse? Next week’s blog post.

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Fool’s Cap

Rolf shouted as he dashed into the vaulted hall of Dorestad castle, “Ragnar, the Franks overran our camp at Nijmegen, now they’re headed here. Has the Jester sailed?” Rolf steadied himself and set his helmet on the oak trestle table. Blood streamed from his leather sleeve and pooled beneath his arm.

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“The Jester sailed yesterday,” Ragnar called, leaning heavily on his cane as he entered the hall. “She took the skalds with her. She said they’d go to Kirkwall for supplies then meet us at Dun Aengus.”

“Dun Aengus.” Rolf winced and dropped his head to his chest. “They’ll trap her there. Thorvald’s joined the Franks. He knows our plans—they’ll send ships straight away. Did the scrolls go with her?”

“Only the meister scroll. She left the proselyte scrolls and the fool’s cap for Áedán to bring in the Karvi longship.”

Rolf looked confused. “The Karvi’s at the bottom of the inlet. As I rode in, I saw the mast and crosstree sloping from the water off the end of the pier.”

“Áedán took an ax to the hull then cut her loose before he ran off.” Ragnar pulled a gnarled hand down over his gray beard. “Áedán left his training materials. Said the fool’s cap never worked for him anyway. He didn’t want anything that would link him to the Jester.” Unsteady, Ragnar sought a chair alongside the table and sat. “All the materials are safe, packed for shipping before Áedán went on his rampage, the trunk sealed inside and out.”

Rolf pressed burning sweat from his eyes, reclaimed his helmet, and lifted a long-shafted, battle-ax from a crossed display on the stone wall. “I’ll try to hold them at the Dorestad gate. You have the servants bury thetrunk somewhere on the grounds. Don’t tell me where. The Franks will keep me alive and try to make me talk. When you’re done, arm yourself and the others and join me at the gate.” He cut the air with a wide sweep of the ax.

“We’ll meet the Jester in Valhalla.”

 

Twelve hundred years later, next week’s blog post,

read how the trunk is discovered and opened.