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

Shef straightened, his interest immediately caught.

“You know the secret of the Greek fire?”

“No. That is something we cannot claim. We believe that no one knows that save some few of the Greeks, and even they, it may be, only one small piece each. But we know something of fire, and what we know we will tell you. If you rescue for us our holy relics.”

The red fires behind them had burned themselves out, the room was now lit only by the clear light of half a score of lamps, like any other room in which men might do business, apart from the stone walls all around. “I will do what I can,” said Shef.

The Emperor of the Romans was learning what so many harassed leaders have learnt throughout history: that the number of helpers in a large and difficult task increases the number of problems, unless those helpers are so disciplined that they never act for themselves or for their own interest. Those who knew him noticed the whitening knuckles and the tension in his neck. Those who did not noticed only his quiet voice and the care with which he appeared to listen.

The baron of Béziers was at odds, it seemed, with the bishop of Besançon. Both contingents were about the same size, a hundred men or six score, and both were rated as middling in loyalty and care. They were not locals, and so would contain no secret heretics in their ranks, but they were not men of Bruno’s own blood either. Both contingents had been sent to the middle ring of the three that Bruno had drawn round Puigpunyent, there to patrol the near-impassable scrub in the days and spend their nights sweltering in the heat that baked up from the scorched ground. They were arguing about water, as was everyone in the army. The baron thought the bishop’s men were calling off their patrols early in order to get there first with their horses and mules, and leave his men only foul water to drink. Not that there was any water for ten miles round that was not fouled by now.

And all the time, Bruno knew, his diggers and pick-axe men pressed closer and closer to the secret. Only this day they had opened up a secret passage within the stone wall they were demolishing, one that led from a hidden garderobe in the walls down to the very foundations of the castle, to emerge in the depth of a ravine—an escape-route when the castle might seem to be surrounded. Bruno was confident no one had taken it. If they had, the garrison would not have needed to fight to the last. But where there was one hidden way, there would be another. From time to time a great crash cut across the noise of the giant encampment, as another stone was lifted from its bed by a hundred men with a sheer-legs, and hurled into the choked gullies far below. Bruno’s head hurt, and the sweat crawled down his neck, and he yearned furiously inside to return to the demolition, spur on the teams and gangs. Instead he had to listen to two fools arguing in a language he could barely follow.

The baron jumped to his feet suddenly, cursing in his own dialect. The bishop shrugged elaborately, affected to misunderstand the gesture, took it as a request to leave. Yawning, he stretched his hand across the table, the episcopal ring glinting upon his finger: kiss my ring and depart, he pantomimed.

The baron, furious, slapped the hand aside. The bishop, sprung like the baron from ten generations of warriors, leapt to his feet in his turn, hand groping for the weapon he did not carry. In an instant the baron had his own dagger out, the long misericorde designed for stabbing through armor-joint or eye-hole.

Far quicker than the baron, quicker than the eye could see, the Emperor’s own hand shot out, seized the baron’s wrist. The ape-like shoulders moved beneath the patched leather jacket the Emperor still wore, a twist, a snap of bone, and the baron was huddled against the flap of the tent. The guards drew their broadswords as a matter of form, but barely changed position. They knew from many battles and skirmishes that the Emperor needed no protection. He was more dangerous with his bare hands than a skilled knight in full armor. Tasso the Bavarian raised an eyebrow inquiringly.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry