King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 8, 9, 10

In the starlight Shef pulled up the hem of his tunic, stared down at his bare thigh. On it, there, two purple marks: Puncture wounds. Svandis stared, reached out a hand, drew it back. For once found nothing to say.

Two hundred miles from the Fafnisbane floating on the placid sea, a group of other men sat huddled at the foot of another dark stairway, deep inside a mountain.

“He is likely to break in tomorrow,” said one of them.

General nods, murmurs of agreement. “We caused them many casualties today. Tomorrow they will bring that great catapult up a little closer, start earlier with our outer defenses down, find the range. Then it will be a rock on top of the main gate and their stormers will come through. Of course we will make barricades inside, but…” A Gallic shrug, barely visible in the candlelight.

“If we surrender tomorrow at dawn they may give us terms, the Emperor Bruno is said to be merciful, they will ask only for an oath which we can in conscience give falsely, then…”

The gabbling frightened voice was cut off by another fierce gesture. “What happens to us is of no moment,” said the first voice. “We may get terms, we may live, we may die. What counts is the holy relics. And if the Emperor thinks they are here—and he already thinks they are here, that is why he is besieging us—anyone who lives tomorrow will be tortured till they tell all they know.”

“Try to get them out? They have sentries. But in the crannies of the Puig, our mountain men could crawl out.”

“With the books and the records, maybe. With the graduale”—the speaker’s Occitan accent had turned the word to graal—”I don’t think so.”

“Get the other things out that way. Just drop the holy relic outside the wall. It has no gold on it, no marks of worship like the Catholics would give it. They won’t know. Our brothers will pick it up later.”

A long pause. “Too risky,” said the first voice. “It could be lost in the rubble. Whoever we told to recognize it later might die, might be tortured, might confess.

“No. What we must do is leave it here, under the mountain. The entry to this place is known only to us, and to the perfecti among us outside the walls. The Emperor cannot tear down the mountain. He will never find the entrance—unless someone tells him.”

“And none of us will tell him,” answered one of his fellows.

A sudden flash in the candlelight, a thud, a choked-off gasp. Two men eased a body to the floor, that of the speaker who had suggested terms.

“Go to God, brother,” said one of the killers. “I love you as a brother still. I would not have you put to a test you could not bear.”

The first voice continued. “So that is clear. The relic must stay. All those of us who know the secret stair must die. For no-one can be sure what he will say at the last end of pain.”

“Are we allowed to die in battle?” queried one of the dark shapes.

“No. A blow on the head, a crippled arm. Anyone may be captured without consenting to it. We would die later of the endura, but that might be too late. And alas, we have no time for the endura. One of us will go up the stair, and tell Marcabru the captain to make the best terms he can tomorrow morning for our poor brothers, the imperfecti. Then that brother will return. And we will take the holy draught together from the chalice of Joseph.”

A hum of satisfaction and agreement, hands shaken across the table in the dark.

An hour later, as the silent perfect ones heard the step of their brother coming again down the stairs to share the poison draught with his brothers, a final voice in the dimness.

“Rejoice, brothers, for we are old. And what was the question that our founder Nicodemus asked of the Son of God?”

Voices answered him in chorus, garbling the Latin words in their own strange dialect. “Quomodo potest homo nasci, cum senex sit! How can a man be born when he is old? Or can he enter again into the womb of his mother?”

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Categories: Harrison, Harry