King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 19, 20, 21, 22

King and Emperor. Chapter 19, 20, 21, 22

Chapter Nineteen

So we lost Maury,” Richier concluded. A wail of grief broke from one of the women in the listening ring: his mother, it must be. Anselm made no reply, still staring uncertainly at the emblem and holiest relic of his faith, now displayed in the open for the lay-folk and the heathen to stare at. He seemed to have begun to realize that rescuing his graduale was only the start of his problems, Shef thought grimly. He slid with the familiar pain in his thigh-muscles from the back of the horse he had stolen.

“Who did you lose?” he asked, staring at Cwicca, at the front of the Wayman gang. “We saw someone go down.”

“We lost two of them. Tolman got back, but he’s hurt.”

“Two? We only saw one go down.”

“That were Ubba,” broke in Steffi. “We don’t know what happened, but before they gave Tolman the poppy to knock him out he said it was very hard lighting the flares and dropping them without them catching on something, with the kites pitching and all. Ubba must have set fire to himself. He didn’t have a chance after that.”

“And the other one, what was his name? Helmi?” Helmi the orphan, the small pale child.

“He came back well enough, but he was going too fast, much too fast. Slammed into the rock ledge below where we were. Kite broke up and he fell two hundred feet. We couldn’t find the body.”

Depression began to settle on Shef, together with weariness and delayed shock from fear too long suppressed. He had come to save Svandis, and save her he had—but from what? These people had had no intention of killing her. If he had not followed they would have turned her loose. And in saving one he had killed two. Two of his own. As for the graduale or the graal or whatever they wanted to call it, maybe Maury had died willingly to save it, but it seemed little enough to buy at such a price. Still clutching the old wooden pole, Shef tossed it absently to Anselm, who caught it automatically, and then stared as if he had clutched a viper. They had sought to bribe him with knowledge of the Greek fire too, but what had he learnt after all? That saltpeter made a fire burn more brightly, that flame could be colored. None of that was Greek fire.

“Tolman ain’t too bad,” put in Cwicca, seeing the look on his master’s face. “He just came down a bit hard, rolled over and over on the rock. We put him to sleep till the cuts start to heal.” He hesitated. “But he flew, master. Even over land and at night. No silly feathers nor nothing, either.”

Shef nodded. It was an achievement of sorts.

“What do we do now?” Cwicca went on.

“I’ll tell you.” Shef looked round at the ring of listening people, Waymen and heretics mixed up together, in the tiny central square of the mountain village.

“First, Anselm. The Emperor is bound to have found out where Maury came from and even who he is. And what we took. You can be sure that his whole army will move from Puigpunyent and come after you.”

“We are high in the mountains, they do not know the paths…”

Shef cut him off. “You do not know the Emperor. Whatever are your safest places, take everyone to them. You will lose your animals and your houses.” He kicked one of the packs of gold lying ignored on the ground. “If I were you I would use these to replace them once the Emperor has left.”

Anselm nodded reluctantly. “The caves, the bat caves, we can hide there for…”

“Start soon.” Shef pointed at the wooden grail. “Take that. Your Grail was bought with a life, with three lives, I hope you find it worthwhile.”

Shef changed direction, changed speech as well. “As for us, Cwicca, remember what Brand said about coming down the mountain faster than we went up? Get our animals together, load ’em up, don’t forget Tolman, and we’re heading back to the ships as fast as ever we can go. He’ll have cavalry out already, and I want to outdistance them.”

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