King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 16, 17, 18

From the goat-path in the scrub, fifty yards from where Shef and the others lay, a dozen men burst out, running determinedly towards the bare rock of the castle, where nothing could burn. As they reached the ring, now a clump, of sentries, Shef saw spear-points flash, heard an angry shout. The head of the German sentries barring their way. Shouts in reply, arms waving, pointing behind them at the flames. More men running from different directions. Shef rose to a crouch beneath the bushes.

“Come on.”

They gaped at him.

“Come on. Look like horse-boys who’ve got lost. Run as if you’re frightened.”

He writhed once more through the bushes, burst through a final tangle, and ran out on to the cleared space, looking round and shouting out in a gabble of Arabic mixed with Norse. The rest followed him, hesitant from the long hours of hiding. Shef seized Straw, lifted him in the air and shook him as if hysterical with fear, turned and ran the wrong way, not towards the gap where the other refugees clustered but round the side of the hill. German eyes saw him, saw only another damned local out of control.

Rounding a turn, Shef halted, pushed aside the youth who had cannoned into his back, stared at the tangle of thorn trees with which the Germans had made their abatis. A weak place, there. He stepped forward, drawing the short single-edged sword slung from the back of his belt. For a few seconds he cut and tugged, then plunged forward, disregarding the scratches that came through wool and hemp. The others followed him, Straw and his mates disappearing at once into the bushes on the other side, Richier gasping again and holding his side. Shef seized him, bent him by force to the ground, thrust him bodily in under the branches. Followed him, this time using all his hoarded strength in one last burst of lizard-like motion. Through to the ravine and the dark rocks below.

As the noise behind died and Shef saw at last the black unguarded cleft that led to the very base of the rock of Puigpunyent, something again made him look up.

There, in the sky, for the first time, he saw a kite wheeling above him and above the flares it had sown. It was silhouetted by flame. Flame running along the cloth of the square kite shape, along the vanes of the controls. In the middle, like a fat-bodied spider in its web, what must be the shape of the flyer, Tolman or Helmi or Ubba. His own match must have caught the cloth. Or perhaps a flare had not fallen properly from its release. But now the kite was swooping down, first in a crazy spiral, then as its lift surfaces burned away, seeming to fold its wings like a gannet and plunge towards the rocks, a meteor trailing flame.

Shef closed his eye, turned away. Thrust Richier to the fore.

“Someone died for your relic,” he hissed. “Now take us to it! Or I will cut your throat in sacrifice to my boy’s ghost.”

The perfectus began to run clumsily across the dark rock to the entrance only he could find.

Chapter Eighteen

His face tight-lipped with fury, the Emperor Bruno whirled his horse on the narrow flame-lit path, the great stallion rearing up and striking out automatically with its steel-shod hooves. A fleeing trooper struggling to get by took one of them on the temple and fell sideways into the brush, there to lie unnoticed till the fire took him. Behind their enraged Emperor his guards and officers lashed out with fist and whip, trying to force panicked soldiers to stand firm, obey their orders, begin to spread out and make a fire-break along the line of the path. Bruno himself ignored the struggle and the confusion.

“Agilulf,” he bellowed. “Find one of these bastards who can speak a proper language. I have to know where that damned thing came down!”

Agilulf swung from his horse, obedient but doubtful. He seized the nearest man and began to shout into his face in the camp-Latin he used to the Greeks. The man he had seized, who spoke nothing but his native dialect of Occitan, and had never met anyone who spoke anything else; gaped at him uselessly.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry