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

Shef whirled the half-rotted stick a few times round his head to make the punk glow brightly, leant forward and tossed the fire-brand a few feet on to the first pile of twigs. A soft ‘whump,’ a bright glare, and the fire was collapsing immediately into fierce embers.

He took another stick, stepped sideways three paces, repeated the process. This time the ‘whump’ was followed by an instant livid green. “Copper filings for green,” he muttered to himself. “Now, what makes the yellow one?”

“We call it orpiment, the golden color,” said Anselm at his side, the graybeard leader of the perfecti. “Though the Greeks give it some other name. Much of this our men learned from Greek traders. That is what made us think that it might be the secret of the Greek fire. Though the Arabs make colored flames like this too, when they light fires to honor their leaders and their Prophet. They have much learning in what they call al-kimi. The lore of burnings and distillations.”

“It is not the Greek fire,” replied Shef absently, working his way down the line of piles, and muttering a color and a substance for each one. “There is nothing pretty about that.”

“But you will not go back on your word to help us?”

“I will not go back on my word to try. But you have set me a hard task.”

“Our men saw you flying strange machines. We thought you might swoop down on Puigpunyent like an eagle and carry off our relics through the air.”

Shef lobbed the last torch, noted the result, turned and grinned down at the smaller, older man.

“Maybe one day we will know how to do that. But to land on a mountain? Not the kindly sea? And fly away again without the lines and the crew and the wind to lift you? Carrying Othin knows what as well as the boy? No, that would take the skill of Wayland the smith of the gods.”

“So what will you do instead?”

“That will take a great deal of work from all of us. From you, and from my men, once they come. Show me again, draw the map in the dirt, where the Christians’ camp is and how they have their guard posts.”

Anselm whistled shrilly, and the shepherd boy who had been playing on his flute of oaten straw rushed over.

The next day, with the sun already beginning to sink, Shef called the whole of his party together—heretics, Northerners, and the kite-gangs brought hastily up by Solomon—and went over once again all the pieces of his plan.

The thirty men and three boys were on a grassy ledge on the last mountain slope looking out over the plains, the rock of Puigpunyent clearly visible, even without the far-seers. In the strong sun anyone could see, also, that the plain down there was alive with men: parties of riders moving one way and another, flashes of sunlight on weapons and armor from every gap in the scrub. It had been an uneasy ride to reach this place, with repeated halts and diversions: Anselm had turned out every man he could to act as a screen of scouts and spies. They were in their own country and close to their most secret fastnesses. Even so, reports had come back every few minutes of Christian riders out in the night, forcing Shef and Anselm and their men to fade from the paths into the rocks or the thorn scrub, till another soft call or whistle would lead them on again. They were safe enough where they were, or so Anselm thought. The ledge could be reached by only two paths, and both were by now heavily guarded. Just the same, it would be bad to attract attention. As he peered out all afternoon over the landscape, Shef had been careful to keep well back, to lie deep in the shadow of a bush.

He spoke, first, to the men of his own party, the snatchers as he thought of them. There were only seven including himself. The shepherd lad, whom Shef had privately dubbed “Straw,” from his endless thin piping: he was to be the guide. Four young men chosen for their agility and speed: they were to be the carriers of the holy things. Richier, youngest of the perfecti. Shef had eyed him askance when Anselm had brought him forward. He was the man who had challenged Shef as he climbed out of the pit, and Shef had no high opinion of his presence of mind or even his courage. Nor was he even much of a lightweight like the others. Youngest of the perfecti he might be, but he was at least forty, an old man by the measure of the mountains or for that matter of the fens, not one who ranged the hills all day or eeled through the brush in pursuit of game. Yet Anselm had said it must be so. Only the perfecti knew the way into their innermost sanctum. No, another could not be told how to find it. Apart from the breach of their strongest rules of secrecy, the way in was not something that could be described. Only shown. So a perfectus must go with the company, and Richier it would have to be.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry