Yet they had let Hartnit go forward, knowing their master had some driving design. They had heard him shout his offer in the bastard Latin most could understand. They had even, some of them, better aware of the defenders’ temper than Bruno, expected the flights of arrows that were the traditional refusal of an offer to surrender. Hartnit, behind his oversized shield or mantlet, had half-expected it too.
No-one had expected the great marble column that jerked over the wall and came down like a bonding giant’s club. One end of it had smashed the mantlet and broken Hartnit almost in half before it plunged on and down the hillside in a cloud of dust. Every man had heard the piteous whimperings of Hartnit the bold, his splintered hip-bones driven through his bladder, until the Emperor himself had stilled them with his misericorde, the long thin dagger that gave final release.
Grimly, then, they had launched the next boulder from the counterweighted catapult, smashed the gate, fought their way in and over the barricade they had known would be set up in the inner courtyard, set themselves to winkle out every last defender from tower and attic and stair and cellar.
Grimly the defenders had fought back, never leaving a man, killing their own wounded as they retreated, till they were penned into the one last tower. Only men inside. Bruno himself had seen, in the inner rooms of the fortress as they fought their way through, the ranks of women, old people, children, slumped over their benches or lying with arms crossed: poisoned, dead, not a survivor. Just the last twenty or so trapped in the last tower, which his men had fired.
He lowered the shield, cautiously, waiting for the instant arrow, stepped forward a hesitant pace. He risked looking foolish now, but it had to be done. Once again, he called out: “You in there! Heretics! If you feel the flame, come out, surrender. I give you my word, my word as a Ritter, as a Kaiser, you will not be harmed. No-one in the world could have fought better. You have done enough.”
Only the crackle and stab of flame in reply, his brothers looking sideways at him once more, wondering if the Emperor was mad. And then, from the heart of the flame, a voice calling.
“Emperor, know this. I am Marcabru the captain, alas still an imperfectus. We care nothing for you, and nothing for the flame. Tonight, like the good thief, I will be with my master in Paradise. For God is kind. He will not let us burn both in this world and the next.”
A crash from the tower as its roof-beams fell in, a waft of dust and smoke, and silence, long silence broken only by the slackening flames. None of the familiar dreadful sounds of sack, the screams and the tears and the deep shouts of release. Only the crackle of flame and the crash of falling stone.
Bruno backed away, shield still up. Erkenbert had appeared now that the fighting had died, his escorts standing a pace behind him. He saw, amazingly, a light of excitement and even good humor shining in the Emperor’s bright blue eyes.
“Well, we know something now,” he said to the scrawny Englishman.
“The bastards must have had something to hide. All we have to do now is find it.”
The Fafnisbane ghosted through the night, her consorts spread out behind her, sails carrying her on with barely a ripple. Shef sat near the prow, feet overboard, catching from time to time a faint spray from the bow. Like a pleasure-cruise, he thought. Nothing like the ice and hunger of his long voyage to the North. He remembered the burnt face and body of Sumarrfugl, the way the skin had crackled under his hand as he drove the dagger home.
A presence on his blind side. He whipped round, relaxed. Half-relaxed. It was Svandis in her white dress, settling herself beside him.
“Brand didn’t kill those fishermen, you know,” she began. “He sank their boat, but gave them time to make a raft and load water on it. They had a pair of oars. He said they should reach either the mainland or one of the islands in about a day and a half, time enough for us to be gone.”