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

“I want this place sealed off tighter than an abbess’s—tighter than a convent dormitory,” Bruno had said, forgetting his usual careful respectfulness to every form of religious life. “We haven’t the men now, but as soon as they start to come in, assign them and place them. Till then, Tasso,” he added to his Lanzenorden guard-commander, “you can tell our lads that no one goes to sleep. Me neither. Get them out and watching every rock.”

“What for?” said Tasso.

“You saw the way they all killed themselves. Why? Because they didn’t want anyone to tell us something. Tell us where something was. So it must be here. And you can be sure someone will try to get it out. So we’ll seal the place off.”

“That won’t find anything,” said Tasso, an old comrade allowed to speak freely to a brother of the order, even if that brother was his Kaiser and commander.

Bruno seized him with both hands by the beard. “It won’t lose anything either! And now we know it’s here, once we’re all sealed off, all we have to do is look.”

“We’ve looked already.”

“Not under every stone we haven’t. And we’re going to take every last stone of this hill down and throw it in the sea if we have to! Erkenbert!” Bruno shouted to his deacon, busily giving messengers their directions. “Tell the bishops to send pickaxes too! And men to use them.”

Released, Tasso tramped off to survey the ground and set up his too-scanty sentry-posts. As the day wore on his expression grew more and more troubled. A Bavarian himself, from the vineyards of the south, he found the ravines and dense scrub of the sharp, steep Pyrenean foothills baffling.

“Need a thousand men to do this job,” he muttered to himself. “Two thousand. And where’s the food coming from? Or the water? Still: Befehl ist Befehl. Helmbrecht, Siegnot, Hartmut, guard this path here. And remember, no one sleeps till reliefs are sent. Kaiserbefehl, understand?”

He tramped on in the heat, scattering detachments here and there. He did not know that keeping pace with him a quarter of a mile outside the ring he was setting up, sliding through the dense thorny scrub as low to the ground as a weasel, eyes watched his every move.

The shepherd lad had expected fear and strangeness as he came in to make his report, but even so he gulped and swallowed convulsively as his eyes adapted to the dim light. Facing him behind a rough table sat a semi-circle of men. At least, they might be men. Every figure was dressed in long grey robes, and each one had a cowl over his head, pulled so far forward that the faces could not be seen. If he had seen them, he might have recognized them. For no one could be sure who the perfecti might be, though among the heretic villages rumors and evaluations ran continually: he refused mutton the other day, maybe he eats no meat, his wife and he sleep together but speak to each other like brother and sister, she has not given birth for three years though her child was weaned last spring. All might be indicators of having passed into the central mystery. But in the heretic villages all strove to live like perfecti even though they might never reach that grade: so fasting or celibacy might indicate only ambition, not achievement. The cowled men could be anyone.

The shepherd boy knelt clumsily, straightened again. A voice came from the semi-circle, not from the middle. It might be that a spokesman had been selected because his voice would not be recognized. In any case he spoke in no more than a whisper.

“What did you see at Puigpunyent?”

The lad considered. “I went close up to the rock, from all sides except the east, where the road is. The gate is battered down, the towers are burnt and much of the stone has fallen in. The Emperor’s men swarm over the castle as thick as fleas on an old dog.”

“What of the outside?”

“The Christians have placed men all round the rock, as close to the base of it as they can get, in a ring on all sides. They are heavy men in armor, and walk about very little in the heat. Food and water is brought out to them. I cannot understand what they say to each other, but they do not sleep and they seem not to complain. Much of the time they sing their heathen hymns and prayers.”

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Categories: Harrison, Harry