“We have only a short time,” Shef said in a more normal voice. “Lead on quickly.”
Richier took a candle, began to hurry down what seemed almost an endless stair, winding down into the heart of the mountain. After two hundred counted steps he stopped, and Shef realized that he was at last standing on level floor. In front of him was a stout door, its top rounded, of oak reinforced with iron. Richier had another key out. Before he inserted it he turned to the youths behind him and muttered something. All of them fell to their knees, made the strange zig-zag sign of their sect.
“This is our holiest place,” said Richier. “None but the perfecti may enter.”
Shef shrugged. “Better go in, bring everything out then.”
Richier looked at the forbidding figure of the man who had disarmed him, shook his head in exasperation. “Come in, you must. But remember this is holy.”
Straw and the others seemed to need no reminder. They hung back, let Shef follow Richier through the door. Looking round in the candlelight, Shef reflected that they had reason for their shyness.
It was a place of death. The stench he had detected was stronger here. And yet he had known worse, much worse, on the battlefields of England. Here the dry air seemed to quell corruption. In front of him, round the circular table, a dozen men—a dozen corpses—sprawled in their seats, some face down with skulls on arms, some fallen to the floor. Richier made his zigzag sign again, and childhood habit made Shef begin to make the sign of the cross. He corrected himself, turned it into a hammer. Thor, or Thunor, between me and evil.
“They died rather than take the chance of capture and torment,” said Richier. “They took the poison together.”
“It is for us to see they did not die in vain, then,” prompted Shef.
Richier nodded, braced himself, walked across the room, skirting the fallen bodies, till he came to a further door on the other side. Unlocked it, pushed it open.
“The place of the Graal,” he said.
Moving into the last room, Richier took on a sudden assurance, like one who knew every detail of the place, and was anxious to show his mastery. Candle in hand, he moved round the small circular room, lighting candle after candle in turn as they stood in great candlesticks. Golden candlesticks, Shef saw immediately. The light that shone from them lit up more gold, on the walls and on the furnishings of what seemed a Christian chapel. But in the place of honor there was no altar.
Instead, a coffin, a sarcophagus of stone, placed almost next to the far wall. And rising out of it, incongruous in the gleam of wealth, a plain wooden pole-ladder, three rungs on one side and two the other, its ends untrimmed, bark still showing here and there on the pale peeled wood.
“That is it,” said Richier. “The graduale on which our Lord was carried from Calvary. Rising from the coffin to show how we can rise again.”
“I thought Anselm said that Christ had not risen. That he died like an ordinary man. Is his body not here?”
“Not here. Not anywhere! For we do not rise as the Christians say, by the favor of the Church, mother of iniquities. We rise by denying the body. By becoming spirit alone! ‘How can an old man become young? And enter again into the womb of his mother?’ There is only one way—”
A moan of superstitious fear came from behind Shef as the listening boys heard the great question of their faith emerge in Richier’s clumsy Arabic, which they too only half-understood. Richier gazed angrily round, realized he had said too much before the uninitiate, realized too that in this holiest of holies, about to be defiled, mere words meant little.
“Do not enter into the womb! Do not spill the seed! Pay no more tribute to him, to the Father who sent his Son to die, to the Prince of this world, the God who is rightly a devil! Die and leave no child as hostage to the enemy.”