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

No wonder Svandis wasn’t raped, Shef thought, looking down at the working face, the angry eyes. Though it is not much of an answer. He glanced down into the empty coffin.

“Tell me. What is it we have to save? Besides the graduale.”

Richier nodded, collected himself. “There is the gold, of course.” He waved a hand round at the blaze of red metal surrounding them. “More important, much more important, are the books.”

“The books?”

“The holy testimonies of our faith. The true gospels, written by men who had spoken with the Son of God face to face. The Son of God grown to wisdom, no longer in the folly of his youth.”

Interesting books they must be, thought Shef. If they are not forgeries. “What do they weigh?” he asked.

“A few pounds, no more. And then… Then we must take with us the graduale.”

Shef looked at the ladder rising out of the coffin more doubtfully, stepped across to handle it. Behind him, breath hissed in fear and muted anger that an unbeliever should touch the relic. But that was what they were here for. That was why the unbeliever had been sent. And he had passed the ordeal of the perfecti, Richier told himself, even if his faith was not sound.

No more than seven feet long, thought Shef. He lifted it gently. Old wood, dry wood, wood eight centuries old and more if what they said was true. Yet it had been seasoned to begin with, never exposed to the weather. In the old legionary buildings of York Shef had been shown stairs and galleries that men swore dated from the time of the ancient Romans. There was no reason to think the graduale was false just because it seemed still sound. No doubt it fitted the doctrines of the sect not to have adorned it with gold and jewels as the Christians did with all the many fragments of the True Cross. The thing was light enough, anyway, to lift one-handed. Awkward to carry up a spiral staircase. As for the thorns and the brush outside…

“Very well,” said Shef, lifting the ladder from its place. “Richier, get your books, make a pack of them, you carry them. You boys, take the gold candlesticks, the plates, everything gold you can see, wrap each piece in cloth, divide them between you so you can carry them easily.”

“Cloth, master?” asked Straw.

“The gentlemen next door will not grudge you their robes. Not for this purpose,” added Shef, trying to shift the look of terror and awe. “If they were alive, they would tell you to do it. Their ghosts are with you.”

Reluctantly the boys turned and went to their macabre task. Still holding the ladder, Shef went back through the antechamber of death and stood in the stairwell, listening. In the silence deep underground he could still hear shouting from above. Not a good sign.

As they scuffed heavy-laden up the stairs, the sound was still with them, coming louder and clearer over the deep breathing of tired men. Shef tramped up and up, in the lead, no longer aware of how far they had gone or where the exit of the pivoting stone might be. He held the holy ladder in his left hand, to keep it away from the central pillar. Every time he knocked it against a tread or the outside wall he could feel Richier wince behind him, sometimes hear a suppressed complaint. If there were light enough the man would be collecting together every splinter of bark that fell from it.

A hiss from below. Shef halted, realized he had gone past the stone. Richier, careless now of secrecy, was fumbling with a projecting knob of rock. He pulled it out, and the seemingly solid wall shifted slightly, pivoting freely again. Shef hesitated, stacked the ladder carefully against the wall on a higher tread, stepped three steps down. As Richier pushed the upper half of the stone outwards, Shef evaded the slow rise of the lower half inside the stairwell, and peered out into the dark.

A dark still light. Fires burning out there, though they were red now, not the strange colors of the Arab flares. Had anyone seen the stone move? There were no cries, no shouts of alarm. In fact, outside the castle, everything was still. Shef could see the circle of thorn through which they had struggled, could see the hillside beyond. There were no men running in panic, no visible sentries, no sign of movement at all. It was light out there, Shef told himself, though where he was he was still hidden in the shadow of the castle wall and the ravine below.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry