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

Inside the courtyard the turmoil was like the last square of the harvest, filled with trapped rats running in all directions to avoid the scythes and cudgels closing in on them. But only to the untrained eye. The Emperor could see order being reimposed on chaos. The men who worked day and night to dig down to the foundations of this heretics’ nest were rushing back to work with their picks and barrows, reeving the ropes and pulleys once again to the great crane that lifted the stone blocks and hurled them into the gulleys outside. In one corner their overseer, who had allowed them to desert their toil as the lights in the sky appeared, was screaming at a triangle of pike-shafts while two of Bruno’s Lanzenbrüder sergeants methodically laid on the two hundred lashes which Bruno had ordered him. His deputy, new promoted, stood in the middle of the yard, pale with fear and shrieking orders.

What was causing the trouble was the hospital. Careful and solicitous of the welfare of those who served him properly, Bruno had ordered space made in the central courtyard for beds for the trickle of casualties who had come in from scuffles with the locals, and the greater trickle of men who had caught feet beneath blocks of stone or jammed their arms under moving ropes. Only in the castle was there pure water in abundance, from the well sunk deep into the living rock beneath. Water was what the sick needed more than anything. But now the fires and chaos outside were bringing in more than a trickle, a gush of casualties. Men burnt fire-fighting, men with broken bones from falls, fools who had tripped on their own weapons. He would have to countermand the order that injuries should be brought in, Bruno decided. Let them wait on the plain outside till daylight. They were beginning to impede the work-parties. There, in the angle, a stretcher-party rushing busily in entirely the wrong direction. He opened his mouth to hail them, then closed it, gestured grimly to Tasso to sort the fools out, turned and snarled his orders to the gasping Agilulf, who had finally caught up with him, to get the injured not already in their beds out of the way, and prevent any more entries.

As he turned back to watch the courtyard again, he saw a different group thrusting through the gateway. A group with a different look on their faces. Not fear, but glee and triumph. And as they entered, so too did the faithful Erkenbert, on foot, his mule abandoned at the base of the rock.

“What have you got there?” he asked.

“A rat,” said the Brüder in the lead, eyes gleaming in the red light. Wolfram, Bruno saw, a good brother from holy Echternach. “He came running out of the castle, right into the arms of Dietrich here.”

“Out of the castle? But you are posted out to the west, there is no gate there.”

“No gate we can see, herra. But out he came, down the ravine to the west like a little mouse. He had not climbed down the wall, or we would have seen him. He was running full pelt like someone scared out of his wits.”

“I tripped him with my lance-butt,” added the burly Dietrich. “His leg broke and he tried to squawk, but I gagged him. He has given no warning to anyone still inside.”

“And look, herra,” said Wolfram the sergeant, his face shining with pleasure and anticipation. “See what the rat had for his hoard.”

He tipped a makeshift sack out at the Emperor’s feet. From it there rolled goblets and plates, a massive candlestick. The light of the fires still glowing out on the plain gave back glints of gold.

Bruno bent, picked up one of the plates, felt the unmistakable heft of it. Something engraved on it. He could not read it well. A letter “N” in flowing script?

“What do you make of that?” he asked, passing it to Erkenbert.

“Little enough,” said the deacon. “But this is no hedge-baron’s hoard. More like the communion plate of the Holy Father in Rome. I fear we will have to ask the boy.”

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Categories: Harrison, Harry