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

His skin prickled. He ducked back inside, put his shoulder under the stone, heaved up till the stone sighed its way back into place. In the glimmering light of the one candle he had allowed, Richier looked at him, appalled.

“Too quiet,” said Shef briefly. “I’ve heard that quiet before. Means they’re watching. Maybe both ways. Maybe they know we’re inside.”

“We cannot stay here.”

“No. No.” A voice Shef had not heard before broke in, one of the youths with the packs. He was gabbling in the local dialect which Shef could not understand, but he could catch the unmistakable note in his voice. The boy’s nerve had cracked, from the secret crawl, the fear of the holy place, the horror of robbing the dead, the chill of dark stone.

“Laissetz, laissetz me parti.” He was pushing at the stone, swinging it open again, only part-way, enough to find a crack and wriggle through it like a weasel, pack still slung on his back. Shef grasped at him, caught only a rag of tunic which tore in his hand. Then the boy was out. Shef left the stone open half a foot, bent and peered one-eyed through the crack.

He could see nothing, hear only a faint whisk of bare feet on stone. That too died. Silence, and a faint smell of burning coming on the wind. And then, as Shef was almost ready to override his fears and lead the others forward, faint but clear, a crack like a stick breaking, a shrill shriek instantly muffled, a clang like a far-off gong being beaten. Metal bouncing on stone.

Shef heaved the stone shut once again, this time with total finality. “You heard,” he said. “They got him. Now they know we’re here.”

“We’re trapped,” gasped Richier. “With the graal which our elders died to save.”

“The stairway goes up as well as down,” said Shef.

“We cannot break the wall down from inside, they would hear.”

“But there must be a doorway up there, a secret one like the one by which we entered, only inside the castle.”

Richier swallowed. “It comes out in an angle of the tower. The tower that was burnt, where Marcabru died.”

“So we’ll come out in a pile of rubble, that’s good.”

“It is across the courtyard from the main gate. I do not think there is any other way out. The courtyard is full of the Emperor’s men, he has made it into a hospital for those wounded in fighting or injured in the work. We cannot just walk out. Not with a ladder over our shoulders! And besides the boys might pass as workmen or helpers, and I too, but you…”

Too tall, he meant, like a German but without the armor. And too distinctive.

“Show me where the stair comes out,” said Shef, a plan forming in his mind. “It cannot be far from where the pickax-men broke through.”

Bruno, by the grace of God Emperor of the Romans, in his own mind vice-regent of God on earth, stood at the center of the main gateway of the castle of Puigpunyent and surveyed the scene in its milling courtyard. Everywhere his eye fell, men sprang to more frantic efforts. He took no pleasure in it. That was as it should be. Though his face was impassive, his body was filled with such furious excitement that it would barely obey him. Twice on his frantic gallop back from the scene by the crashed fire-machine his involuntary clenching on the reins had dragged his stallion back on its haunches, almost unseating him. But he had returned in time. He was sure of it. Sure too that the whole display of lights and flame and portents in the sky had been exactly what his puny deacon had said: a distraction. Certain proof that the treasure he sought was within his grasp. If only he could stretch out his hand to take it. As he stood there, clutching the new-shafted lance which never left him, the Emperor allowed himself to do something he did only in moments of greatest stress: he rested his cheek on the very metal that had drunk the blood of his Lord, to feel coming from it the power and the assurance that were his by right.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry