King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 11, 12, 13

The perfecti ignored the lad’s equation of Christian and heathen: it was what they thought themselves. The interrogating voice dropped even lower.

“Were you not afraid that they would catch you?”

The lad smiled. “Men in armor? Catch me on the hillside, or in the maquis? No, lords. If they saw me they could not catch me. But they have never seen me.”

“Well then, tell us this. Could you—you and some of your fellows, it might be—could you pierce their ring and get over the wall and inside the castle? Perhaps take one of us with you. A mountain man, but not a swift boy such as yourself?”

The boy’s face grew more hesitant. If he said yes, would they ask him to do it? He had no wish to join the corpses he had seen carried out and laid on the green plain below the castle entrance. Yet above all he wished for the good opinion of the men whom all respected, the men of honor.

“Their posts are badly placed, and the sentries start and shoot if so much as a fox rustles in the thickets. Yes, I could make my way through them. And maybe three or four of my friends. An older man… The spines on the scrub grow high, you see, maybe a foot, two feet from the ground. I do not walk, I slide on my belly, fast as another man walks. A heavier man, a man who does not stoop, who says ‘Oh, my back’ “—for a moment the lad imitated the priest of his village, a heretic like the rest but one who remained in communion with the Church and the bishop, to throw off suspicion—”he could not get through. He would be caught.”

The cowled heads nodded almost imperceptibly as they registered the finality of his statement.

“And caught he must not be,” observed the whispering voice. “Thank you, lad, you have done us a service. Your village shall know of it. Our blessing to you, and may it grow as you grow older. Outside, talk to the men you will find there. Show them the sentry-posts as you have seen them.”

After he had gone out, nothing was said for a while. “Bad news,” said one of the cowls after a while. “He knows there is something there.”

“It was the defiance of Marcabru that alerted him. If they had surrendered and walked out, he would have thought it was just another siege and gone his way. It is best not to attract attention. To surrender, to deny our faith, to vow obedience to the Pope as we have always done. Then return to what we know after they have gone.”

“Marcabru fought to the last because he feared someone would talk. And who knows? They might have done. Maybe he had his orders. After all, we do not know what happened inside the castle. Maybe there were signs of treason.”

The silence descended again. Another voice volunteered information. “They say that after the Emperor took the castle he had all the bodies inside it carried out on to the plain by the river, and there had them burnt. But before he did that his men stripped and searched all the dead. Searched their bellies with knives, even, to be sure they had hidden nothing. After they were burnt his men sifted the ash once more. And everything inside the castle, every stick of chair or table, was carried out and laid out to be inspected by the Emperor and his black deacon. He had them burnt too, before people of the nearby villages, while he watched their faces. He thought they would betray it if they saw a holy relic burnt.”

“He does not know what he is looking for, then.”

“No. Nor does he know how to find the entrance to the place of the Grail.”

“But he is demolishing the castle stone by stone. How long will it take before some pick-stroke lays bare the door, or the staircase?”

“Not for a long time,” said one of the voices, with certainty in its tone.

“But if he digs down to very bedrock?”

For a third time the silence fell. At length, as the sun threw shadows further and further aslant across the dim-windowed room, the most certain of the voices spoke again.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry