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"You speak truth, my Lord," the Professor said promptly. "I meant to say that the daring of his intended plans draws new soldiers to his side every day. By now, he has a thousand in his company. Perhaps two thousand."
Oliver snorted. "I am not afraid."
"I am sure you are not," Johnston said, "but this castle has a shallow moat; a single drawbridge; a single gateway arch, no deadfall, and a single portcullis. Your ramparts to the east are low. You have space to store food and water for only a few days. Your garrison is cramped in the small courtyards, and your men not easily maneuverable."
Oliver said, "I tell you, my treasure is here, and I shall remain here with it."
"And my advice," Johnston said, "is to gather what you can and depart. La Roque is built on a cliff, with sheer rock on two sides. It has a deep moat on the third side, two gateway doors, two portculli, two drawbridges. Even if invaders manage to pass the outer gateway - "
"I know the virtues of La Roque!"
"And I do not wish to hear your damnable instruction!"
"As you will, Lord Oliver." And then Johnston said, "Ah."
"My Lord," Johnston said, "I cannot counsel if you circumstance to me."
"Circumstance? I do not circumstance, Magister. I speak plainly, holding nothing back."
"How many men have you garrisoned at La Roque?"
Oliver squirmed uncomfortably. "Three hundred."
"So. Your treasure is already at La Roque."
Lord Oliver squinted. He said nothing. He turned, walked around Johnston, squinted again. Finally: "You are pressing me to go there by provoking my fears."
"I am not."
"You want me to move to La Roque because you know that castle has a weakness. You are the creature of Arnaut and you prepare the way for his assault."
"My Lord," Johnston said, "if La Roque is inferior, as you say, why have you placed your treasure there?"
Oliver snorted, again unhappy. "You are clever with words."
"My Lord, your own actions tell you which castle is superior."
"Very well. But Magister, if I go to La Roque, you go with me. And if another finds that secret entrance before you have told me of it, I will myself see that you die in a way that will make Edward's end" - he cackled at his pun - "appear a kindness."
"I take your meaning," Johnston said.
"Do you? Then see you take it to heart."
Chris Hughes stared out the window.
Sixty feet below him, the courtyard lay in shadow. Men and women in their finery drifted toward the lighted windows of the great hall. He heard the faint sounds of music. The festive scene made him feel even more morose, more isolated. The three of them were going to be killed - and there was nothing they could do about it.
They were locked in a small chamber, high in the central tower of the castle keep, overlooking the castle walls and the town beyond. This was a woman's room, with a spinning wheel and an altar off to one side, perfunctory signs of piety overwhelmed by the enormous bed with red plush coverings and fur trim in the center of the room. The door to the room was of solid oak, and fitted with a new lock. Sir Guy himself had locked the door, after placing one guard inside the room, sitting by the door, and two others outside.
They were taking no chances this time.
Marek sat on the bed, staring into space, lost in thought. Or perhaps he was listening; he had one hand cupped around his ear. Meanwhile, Kate paced restlessly, moving from one window to the next, inspecting the view from each. At the farthest window, she leaned way out, looking down, then walked to the window where Chris was standing and leaned out again.
"The view here is just the same," Chris said. Her restlessness annoyed him.
Then he saw she was reaching out to run her hand along the wall at the side of the window, feeling the stones and the mortar.
He stared at her, questioning.
"Maybe," she said, nodding. "Maybe."
Chris reached out and touched the wall. The masonry was nearly smooth, the wall curving and sheer. It was a straight drop to the courtyard below.
"Are you joking?" he said.
"No," she said. "I'm not."
He looked out again. In the courtyard, there were many others besides the courtiers. A group of squires talked and laughed as they cleaned the armor and groomed the horses of the knights. To the right, soldiers patrolled the parapet wall. Any of them could turn and look up if her movement caught their eye.
"You'll be seen."
"From this window, yes. Not from the other. Our only problem is him." She nodded toward the guard at the door. "Can you do anything to help?"
Sitting on the bed, Marek said, "I'll take care of it."
"What the hell is this?" Chris said, very annoyed. He spoke loudly. "You don't think I can do this myself?"
"No, I don't."
"Damn it, I'm sick of the way you treat me," Chris said. He was furious; looking around for something to fight with, he picked up the little stool by the spinning wheel and started toward Marek.
The guard saw it, said, "Non, non, non" quickly as he went toward Chris. He never saw Marek hit him from behind with a metal candlestick. The guard crumpled, and Marek caught him, eased him silently to the floor. Blood was pouring from the guard's head onto an Oriental carpet.
"Is he dead?" Chris said, staring at Marek.
"Who cares?" Marek said. "Just continue to talk quietly, so the ones outside hear our voices."
They looked over, but Kate had already gone out the window.
It's just a free solo, she told herself, as she clung to the tower wall, sixty feet in the air.
The wind pulled at her, rippling her clothes. She gripped the slight protrusions of the mortar with her fingertips. Sometimes the mortar crumbled away, and she had to grab, then grip again. But here and there, she found indentations in the mortar, large enough for her fingertips to fit in.
She'd flashed more difficult climbs. Any number of buildings at Yale were more difficult - although there, she'd always had chalk for her hands, and proper climbing shoes, and a safety rope. No safety here.
It isn't far.
She'd climbed out the west window because it was behind the guard, because it faced toward the town, and so she would be less likely to be seen from the courtyard below - and because it was the shortest distance to the next window, which stood at the end of the hallway that ran outside the chamber.
It isn't far, she told herself. Ten feet at most. Don't rush it. No hurry. Just one hand, then a foothold . . . another hand . . .
Almost there, she thought.
Then she touched the stone windowsill. She got her first firm handgrip. She pulled herself up one-handed, then peered cautiously down the corridor.
There were no guards.
The hallway was empty.
Using both hands now, Kate pulled up, flopped onto the ledge, and slid over onto the floor. She was now standing in the hallway outside the locked door. Softly, she said, "I made it."
Marek said, "Guards?"
"No. But no key, either."
She inspected the door. It was thick, solid.
Marek said, "Hinges?"
"Yes. Outside." They were made of heavy wrought iron. She knew what he was asking her. "I can see the pins." If she could knock the pins out of the hinges, the door would be easy to break open. "But I need a hammer or something. There's nothing here I can use."
"Find something," Marek said softly.
She ran down the corridor.
"De Kere," Lord Oliver said as the knight with the scar came into the room. "The Magister counsels to remove to La Roque."
De Kere gave a judicious nod. "The risk would be grave, sire."
"And the risk to stay here?" Oliver said.
"If the Magister's advice is true and good, and without other intent, why did his assistants conceal their identity when first they came to your court? Such concealment is not the mark of honesty, my Lord. I would you be satisfied of their answer for this conduct, before I put faith in this new Magister and his advisements."
"Let us all be satisfied," Oliver said. "Bring the assistants to me now, and we shall ask them what you wish to know."
"My Lord." De Kere bowed, and left the room.
Kate came out of the stairwell and slipped into the crowd in the courtyard. She was thinking that she could use a carpenter's tool kit, or a blacksmith's hammer, or maybe some of the tools the farrier used to shoe horses. Over to the left, she saw the grooms and the horses, and she started to drift in that direction. In the excited throng, nobody paid her any attention. She slipped easily toward the east wall, and was beginning to consider how to distract the grooms, when directly ahead she saw a knight standing very still and staring at her.
Robert de Kere.
Their eyes met for a moment, and then she turned and ran. From behind her she heard de Kere shout for help, and the answering cries from soldiers all around. She pushed forward through the crowd, which was suddenly an impediment, hands clutching at her, plucking at her clothes. It was like a nightmare. To escape the crowd, she went through the nearest door, slamming it behind her.
She found herself in the kitchen.
The room was dreadfully hot, and more crowded than the courtyard. Huge iron cauldrons boiled on fires in the enormous fireplace. A dozen capons turned on a row of spits, the crank turned by a child. She paused, uncertain what to do, and then de Kere came through the door after her, snarled, "You!" and swung his sword.
She ducked, scrambled among the tables of food being prepared. The sword crashed down, sending platters flying. She scrambled, crouched low, beneath the tables. The cooks began to yell. She saw a giant model of the castle, made in some kind of pastry, and headed there. De Kere was right after her.
The cooks were shouting "Non, Sir Robert, non!" in a kind of chorus from all around the room, and some of the men were so distressed that they came forward to stop him.
De Kere swung again. She ducked, and the sword decapitated the castle battlements, raising a cloud of white powder. At this, the chefs gave a collective shriek of agony and fell on de Kere from all sides, shouting that this was Lord Oliver's favorite, that he had approved it, that Sir Robert must not do further damage. Robert rolled on the floor, swearing and trying to shake them off.
In the confusion, she ran back out the door again, into the afternoon light.
Off to the right she saw the curved wall of the chapel. The chapel was undergoing some restoration; there was a ladder going up the wall, and some perfunctory scaffolding on the roof, where tilers were making repairs.
She wanted to get away from the crowds, and the soldiers. She knew that on the far side of the chapel, a narrow passage ran between the chapel building and the outer wall of the castle tower. At least she would be out of the crowd if she went there. As she ran toward the passage, she heard de Kere behind her, shouting to the soldiers; he had gotten out of the kitchen. She ran hard, trying to gain some distance. She rounded the corner of the chapel. Looking back, she saw other soldiers running the other way around the chapel, intending to head her off at the far end of the passage.
Sir Robert barked more orders to the soldiers as he came around the corner after her - and then he stopped abruptly. The soldiers halted at his side, and everyone murmured in confusion.
They stared down a passage four feet wide between the castle and the chapel. The passage was empty. At the far end of the passage, other soldiers appeared, facing them.
The woman had disappeared.
Kate was clinging ten feet up the chapel wall, the outline of her body concealed by the decorative border of the chapel window and thick vines of ivy. Even so, she was easily visible if anyone looked up. But the passage was dark, and no one did. She heard de Kere shout angrily, "Go to the other assistants, and dispatch them now!"
The soldiers hesitated. "But Sir Robert, they assist the Magister of Lord Oliver - "
"And Lord Oliver himself commands it. Kill them all!"
The soldiers ran off, into the castle.
De Kere swore. He was talking to a remaining soldier, but they were whispering, and her ear translator crackled and she couldn't make it out. In truth, she was surprised she had been able to hear as much as she had.
How had she been able to hear them? It seemed as if they were too far away to hear de Kere so clearly. And yet his voice was clear, almost amplified. Maybe the acoustics of the passage . . .
Glancing down, she saw that some soldiers hadn't left. They were just milling about. So she couldn't go back down. She decided to climb up onto the roof and wait until things were quieter. The roof of the chapel was still in sunlight: a plain peaked roof of tile, with small gaps where repairs were being made. The pitch was steep; she crouched at the gutter and said, "Andre."
A crackle. She thought she heard Marek's voice, but the static was bad.
"Andre, they're coming to kill you."
There was no answer, just more static.
Perhaps the walls around her were interfering with transmission; she might do better from the top of the roof. She began to climb the steep slope, easing around the tile repair sites. At each site, the mason had set up a small platform, with his mortar basin and stack of tiles. The chirp of birds made her pause. She saw there was actually a hole in the roof at these tiling sites, and -
A scraping sound made her look up. She saw a soldier come over the top of the roof. He paused, peering down at her.
Then a second soldier.
So that was why de Kere had been whispering: he'd seen her after all, on the wall, and had sent soldiers up the ladder on the opposite side.
She looked down and saw soldiers in the passage below. They were now staring up at her.
Now the first soldier swung his leg over the ridge of the roof and was starting to come down toward her.
There was only one thing she could do. The mason's hole was about two feet square. Through it she could see the bracing beneath the roof and, about ten feet below that, the stone arches of the chapel ceiling. There was a sort of wooden catwalk running over the arches.
Kate crawled through the hole, and dropped down to the ceiling below. She smelled the sour odor of dust and bird droppings. There were nests everywhere, along the flat walkways, in the corners and joists. She ducked as a few sparrows flew past her head, chittering. And suddenly, she was engulfed in a swirling tornado of shrieking birds and flying feathers. There were hundreds in here, she realized, and she had disturbed them. For a moment she could do nothing except put her arms over her face and stand quietly. The sounds lessened.
When she looked again, there were only a few flying birds. And the two soldiers were climbing down through holes in the roof to the ground below.
Quickly, she moved down the walkway to a far door, which probably led into the church. As she approached it, the door opened and a third soldier came through.
Three against one.
She backed away, moving along the walkway that went over the curves of the ceiling domes. But the other soldiers were moving toward her. They had taken their daggers out. She had no illusions about what they intended.
She backed away.
She remembered how she had hung beneath this ceiling, examining the many breaks and repairs that had been made over the centuries. Now she was standing above that same structure. The walkway clearly implied the curved arches themselves were weak. How weak? Would they support her weight? The men were moving steadily toward her.
She stepped out onto one of the domes gingerly, testing it. She put her full weight on it.
The soldiers were coming after her, but moving slowly. The birds suddenly were active again, shrieking and rising like a cloud. The soldiers covered their faces. The sparrows flew so close that their wings beat at her face. She moved backward again, her feet crunching on the thick layer of accumulated droppings.
She was now standing on a series of domes and pits, with thicker stone ribs where the arches met in the center. She moved toward the ribs because she knew they would be structurally stronger, and walking on them, she made her way toward the far end of the chapel, where she saw a little door. This would probably take her to the interior of the church, perhaps coming down behind an altar.
One of the soldiers ran along the walkway and then stepped out on the bulge of a curving arch. He moved to block her progress. He held his knife in front of him.
Crouching, she gave a little feint, but the soldier simply stood his ground. A second soldier ran up to stand beside him. The third soldier was behind her. He also stepped out onto the dome.
She moved to her right, but the two men came directly toward her. The third was closing in behind.
The two men were just a few yards away from her when she heard a loud crack like a gunshot, and she looked down to see a jagged line open in the mortar between the stones. The soldiers scrambled backward, but the crack was already widening, sending branches out like a tree. The cracks went between their legs; they stared down in horror. Then the stones fell away beneath their feet, and they fell from view, screaming in terror.
She glanced back at the third man, who tripped and fell as he sprinted for the walkway. He landed with a crack, and Kate saw his frightened face as he lay there, feeling the stones beneath his body slowly give way, one after another. And then he disappeared, with a long cry of fear.
And suddenly, she was alone.
She was standing on the ceiling, with the birds shrieking around her. Too frightened to move, she just stood there, trying to slow her breathing. But she was okay.
She was okay.
Everything was okay.
She heard a single crack.
Then nothing. She waited.
Another crack. And this one she felt, directly beneath her feet. The stones were moving. Looking down, she saw the mortar cracking in several directions, streaking away from her. She quickly stepped to her left, heading for the safety of the ribline, but it was too late.
One stone fell, and her foot crashed through the hole. She fell to the level of her waist, then threw her body flat, flinging her hands wide, spreading the weight. She lay there for several seconds, gasping. She thought, I told him it was bad construction.
She waited, trying to figure out how to get out of this hole. She tried to wriggle her body -
Directly in front of her, the mortar opened in a line, and several stones broke loose. And then she felt more give way beneath her; she knew in a moment of horrible certainty that she, too, was going to fall through.
In the plush red room in the tower, Chris was not sure what he had heard through his earpiece. It sounded like Kate had said, "They're coming to kill you." And then something else, which he didn't catch, before the static became constant.
Marek had opened the wooden chest near the little altar, and he rummaged through it hurriedly. "Come on, help!"
"What?" Chris said.
"Oliver keeps his mistress in this room," Marek said. "I'll bet he keeps a weapon here, too."
Chris went to a second chest, at the foot of the bed, and threw it open. This chest seemed to be filled with linens, dresses, silk garments. He flung them in the air as he searched; they fluttered to the floor around him.
He found no weapon.
He looked at Marek. He was standing amid a pile of dresses, shaking his head.
In the hallway outside, Chris heard running soldiers, coming toward them. And through the door, he heard the metallic zing as they drew their swords from their scabbards.
"I can offer you Coke, Diet Coke, Fanta or Sprite," Gordon said. They were standing by a dispensing machine in the hallway of the ITC labs.
"I'll take a Coke," Stern said.
The can clunked to the bottom of the machine. Stern took it, pulled the tab. Gordon got a Sprite. "It's important to stay hydrated in the desert," he said. "We have humidifiers in the building, but they don't work well enough."
They continued on down the corridor to the next doorway.
"I thought you might want to see this," Gordon said, taking Stern into another lab. "If only as a matter of historical interest. This was the lab where we first demonstrated the technology." He flicked on the lights.
The lab was a large and untidy room. The floor was covered with gray antistatic tiles; the ceiling above was open, showing shielded lights and metal trays holding thick cables that ran down like umbilicus lines to computers on tables. On one table, there were two tiny cagelike devices, each about a foot high. They were about four feet apart on the table, and connected by a cable.
"This is Alice," Gordon said proudly, pointing to the first cage. "And this is Bob."
Stern knew that by long-standing convention, quantum transmission devices were labeled "Alice" and "Bob," or "A" and "B." He looked at the little cages. One held a child's plastic doll, a girl in a pioneer-style gingham dress.
"The very first transmission occurred here," Gordon said. "We successfully moved that doll between the cages. That was four years ago."
Stern picked up the doll. It was just a cheap figurine; he saw plastic seams running down the side of the face and body. The eyes closed and opened as he tipped it in his hand.
"You see," Gordon said, "our original intention was to perfect three-dimensional object transmission. Three-dimensional faxing. You may know there has been a lot of interest in that."
Stern nodded; he'd heard about the research work.
"Stanford had the earliest project," Gordon said. "And there was a lot of work in Silicon Valley. The idea was that in the last twenty years, all document transmission has become electronic - either fax or e-mail. You don't need to send paper physically anymore; you just send electronic signals. Many people felt that sooner or later, all objects would be sent the same way. You wouldn't have to ship furniture, for example, you could just transmit it between stations. That kind of thing."
"If you could do it," Stern said.
"Yes. And so long as we were working with simple objects, we could. We were encouraged. But, of course, it isn't sufficient to transmit between two stations connected by cables. We needed to transmit at a distance, over airwaves, so to speak. So we tried that. Here."
He crossed the room, and came to two more cages, somewhat larger and more elaborate. They were beginning to resemble the cages Stern had seen in the cave. These cages had no connecting cables between them.
"Alice and Bob, part two," Gordon said. "Or as we called them, Allie and Bobbie. This was our testbed for remote transmission."
"Didn't work," Gordon said. "We transmitted from Allie but never got to Bob. Ever."
Stern nodded slowly. "Because the object from Allie went to another universe."
"Yes. Of course, we didn't know that right away," Gordon said. "I mean, that was the theoretical explanation, but who would suspect it was actually happening? It took us a hell of a long time to work it out. Finally, we built a homing machine - one that would go out, and come back automatically. The team called it 'Allie-Allie-in-come-free.' It's over here."
Another cage, still larger, perhaps three feet high, and recognizably like the cages that were now used. The same three bars, the same laser arrangement.
"And?" Stern said.
"We verified that the object went out and back," Gordon said. "So we sent more elaborate objects. Pretty soon we succeeded in sending a camera, and got back a picture."
"It was a picture of the desert. Actually, this exact site. But before any buildings were here."
Stern nodded. "And you could date it?"
"Not immediately," Gordon said. "We kept sending the camera out, again and again, but all we got was the desert. Sometimes in rain, sometimes in snow, but always desert. Clearly, we were going out to different times - but what times? Dating the image was quite tricky. I mean, how would you use a camera to date an image of a landscape like that?"
Stern frowned. He saw the problem. Most old photographs were dated from the human artifacts in the image - a building, or a car, or clothing, or ruins. But an uninhabited desert in New Mexico would hardly change appearance over thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of years.
Gordon smiled. "We turned the camera vertically, used a fish-eye lens, and shot the sky at night."
"Of course it doesn't always work - it has to be night, and the sky has to be clear of clouds - but if you have enough planets in your image, you can identify the sky quite exactly. To the year, the day and the hour. And that's how we began to develop our navigation technology."
"So the whole project changed. . . ."
"Yes. We knew what we had, of course. We weren't doing object transmission anymore - there wasn't any point in trying. We were doing transportation between universes."
"And when did you start to send people?"
"Not for some time."
Gordon led him around a wall of electronic equipment, into another part of the lab. And there, Stern saw huge hanging plastic sheets filled with water, like water beds turned on end. And in the center, a full-size machine cage, not as refined as the ones he had seen in the transit room, but clearly the same technology.
"This was our first real machine," Gordon said proudly.
"Wait a minute," Stern said. "Does this thing work?"
"Yes, of course."
"Does it work now?"
"It hasn't been used for some time," Gordon said. "But I imagine it does. Why?"
"So if I wanted to go back and help them," Stern said, "then I could - in this machine. Is that right?"
"Yes," Gordon said, nodding slowly. "You could go back in this machine, but - "
"Look, I think they're in trouble back there - or worse."
"And you're telling me we have a machine that works," Stern said, "right now."
Gordon sighed. "I'm afraid it's a little more complicated than that, David."
Kate fell in slow motion as the ceiling stones gave way. As she descended, her fingers closed on the ragged mortared edge, and with the practice of many years, she gripped it, and it held. She hung by one hand, looking down as the falling stones tumbled in a cloud of dust onto the floor of the chapel. She didn't see what had happened to the soldiers.
She raised her other hand, grabbing the stone edge. The other stones would break away any minute, she knew. The whole ceiling was crumbling. Structurally, the greatest strength was near the reinforced line of the groin, where the arches met. There, or at the side wall of the chapel, which was vertical stone.
She decided to try and get to the side wall.
The stone broke away; she dangled from her left hand. She crossed one hand over the other, reaching as far as she could manage, trying again to spread the weight of her body.
The stone in her left hand broke loose, falling to the floor. Again she swung in the air, and found another handhold. She was now only three feet from the side wall, and the stone was noticeably thicker as it swelled to meet the wall. The edge she was holding felt more stable.
She heard soldiers below, shouting and running into the chapel. It would not be long before they were shooting arrows at her.
She tried to swing her left leg up. The more she could distribute her weight, the better off she would be. She got the leg up; the ceiling held. Twisting her torso, she pulled her body up onto the shelf, then brought her second leg up. The first of the arrows whistled past her; others thunked against the stone, raising little white puffs. She was lying flat on top of the roof.
But she could not stay here. She rolled away from the edge, toward the groin line. As she did, more stones broke away and fell.
The soldiers stopped shouting. Maybe the falling stones had hit one of them, she thought. But no: she heard them running hastily out of the church. She heard men outside, shouting, and horses whinnying.
What was going on?
Inside the tower room, Chris heard the scrape of the key in the lock. Then the soldiers outside paused and shouted through the door - calling to the guard inside the room.
Meanwhile, Marek was searching like a madman. He was on his knees, looking under the bed. "Got it!" he cried. He scrambled to his feet, holding a broadsword and a long dagger. He tossed the dagger to Chris.
Outside, the soldiers were again shouting to the guard inside. Marek moved toward the door and gestured for Chris to step to the other side.
Chris pressed back flat against the wall by the door. He heard the voices of the men outside - many voices. His heart began to pound. He had been shocked by the way Marek killed the guard.
They're coming to kill you.
He heard the words repeated over and over in his head, with a sense of unreality. It didn't seem possible that armed men were coming to kill him.
In the comfort of the library, he had read accounts of past violent acts, murder and slaughter. He had read descriptions of streets slippery with blood, soldiers soaked in red from head to foot, women and children eviscerated despite their piteous pleas. But somehow, Chris had always assumed these stories were exaggerated, overstated. Within the university, it was the fashion to interpret documents ironically, to talk about the na?vete of narrative, the context of text, the privileging of power. . . . Such theoretical posturing turned history into a clever intellectual game. Chris was good at the game, but playing it, he had somehow lost track of a more straightforward reality - that the old texts recounted horrific stories and violent episodes that were all too often true. He had lost track of the fact that he was reading history.
Until now, when it was forcibly brought to his attention.
The key turned in the lock.
On the other side of the door, Marek's face was fixed in a snarl, his lips drawn back, showing teeth clenched. He was like an animal, Chris thought. Marek's body was taut as he gripped his sword, ready to swing. Ready to kill.
The door pushed open, momentarily blocking Chris's view. But he saw Marek swing high, and he heard a scream, and a huge gush of blood splashed onto the floor, and a body fell soon after.
The door banged against his body, stopping its full swing and pinning Chris behind it. On the other side a man slammed against it, then gasped as a sword splintered wood. Chris tried to get out from behind the door but another body fell, blocking his way.
He stepped over the body, and the door thunked flat against the wall as Marek swung at another attacker, and a third soldier staggered away with the impact and fell to the floor at Chris's feet. The soldier's torso was drenched in blood; blood gurgled out of his chest like a flowing spring. Chris bent down to take the sword still in the man's hand. As he pulled at the sword, the man gripped it tightly, grimacing at Chris. Abruptly, the soldier weakened and released the sword, so that Chris staggered back against the wall.
The man continued to stare at him from the floor. His face contorted in a grimace of fury - and then it froze.
Jesus, he thought, he's dead.
Suddenly, to his right, another soldier stepped into the room, his back to Chris as he fought Marek. Their swords clanged; they fought fiercely; but the man had not noticed Chris, and Chris raised his sword, which felt very heavy and unwieldy. He wondered if he could swing it, if he could actually kill the man whose back was turned to him. He lifted the sword, cocked his arm as if he were batting - batting! - and prepared to swing, when Marek cut the man's arm off at the shoulder.
The dismembered arm shot across the floor and thumped to rest against the wall, beneath the window. The man looked astonished for the instant before Marek cut his head off in a single swing, and the head tumbled through the air, banged against the door next to Chris, and fell onto his toes, face downward.
Hastily, he jerked his feet away. The head rolled, so the face was turned upward, and Chris saw the eyes blink and the mouth move, as if forming words. He backed away.
Chris looked away to the torso on the floor, still pumping blood from the stump of the neck. The blood flowed freely over the stone floor - gallons of blood, it seemed like. He looked at Marek, now sitting on the bed, gasping for breath, his face and doublet splattered with blood.
Marek looked up at him. "You all right?" he said.
Chris couldn't answer.
He couldn't say anything at all.
And then the bell in the village church began to ring.
Through the window, Chris saw flames licking up from two farmhouses at the far edge of the town, near the circling town wall. Men were running in the streets toward it.
"There's a fire," Chris said.
"I doubt it," Marek said, still sitting by the bed.
"No, there is," Chris said. "Look."
In the town, horsemen were galloping through the streets; they were dressed as merchants or traders, but they rode like fighters.
"This is a typical diversion," Marek said, "to start an attack."
"The Archpriest is attacking Castelgard."
"This is just an advance party, perhaps a hundred soldiers or so. They'll try to create confusion, disruption. The main body is probably still on the other side of the river. But the attack has begun."
Apparently others thought so, too. In the courtyard below, courtiers were streaming out of the great hall and hurrying toward the drawbridge, leaving the castle, the party abruptly ended. A company of armored knights galloped out, scattering the courtiers, thundered across the drawbridge, and raced down through the streets of the town.
Kate stuck her head in the door, panting. "Guys? Let's go. We have to find the Professor before it's too late."
There was pandemonium in the great hall. The musicians fled, the guests rushed out the doors, dogs barked and plates of food clattered to the floor. Knights were running to join the battle, shouting orders to their squires. From the high table, Lord Oliver came quickly down, grabbed the Professor by the arm, and said to Sir Guy, "We go to La Roque. See to the Lady Claire. And bring the assistants!"
Robert de Kere burst breathlessly into the room. "My Lord, the assistants are dead! Killed while trying to escape!"
"Escape? They tried to escape? Even if that risked their master's life? Come with me, Magister," Lord Oliver said darkly. Oliver led him to a side door that opened directly to the courtyard.
Kate scrambled down the circular staircase, with Marek and Chris close behind. At the second floor, they had to slow for a group descending ahead of them. Around the curve, Kate glimpsed ladies in waiting, and the red robes of an elderly, shuffling man. Behind her, Chris yelled, "What's the problem?" and Kate held up a warning hand. It was another minute before they burst through into the courtyard.
It was a chaotic scene. Knights on horseback whipped the throng of panicked revelers to force them aside. She heard the cries of the crowd, the whinny of horses, the shouts of soldiers on the battlements above. "This way," Kate said, and she led Marek and Chris forward, staying close to the castle wall, going around the chapel, then laterally into the outer courtyard, which they could see was equally crowded.
They saw Oliver on horseback, the Professor at his side and a company of armored knights. Oliver shouted something, and all moved forward toward the drawbridge.
Kate left Marek and Chris to chase them alone, and she just managed to catch sight of them at the end of the drawbridge. Oliver turned to the left, riding away from the town. Guards opened a door in the east wall, and he and his company rode through into the afternoon sunlight. The door was shut hastily behind them.
Marek caught up with her. "Where?" he said.
She pointed to the gate. Thirty knights guarded it. More stood on the wall above.
"We'll never get out that way," he said. Just behind them, a cluster of soldiers threw off brown tunics, revealing green-and-black surcoats; they began fighting their way into the castle. The drawbridge chains began to clank. "Come on."
They ran down the drawbridge, hearing the wood creak, feeling it begin to rise under their feet. The drawbridge was three feet in the air when they reached the far end and jumped, landing on the ground of the open field.
"Now what?" Chris said, picking himself up. He still carried his bloody sword in his hand.
"This way," Marek said, and he ran straight into the center of the town.
They headed toward the church, then away from the narrow main street, where intense fighting had already begun: Oliver's soldiers in maroon and gray, and Arnaut's in green and black. Marek led them to the left through the market, now deserted, the wares packed up and the merchants gone. They had to step quickly aside as a company of Arnaut's knights on horseback galloped past, heading toward the castle. One of them swung at Marek with his broadsword and shouted something as he passed. Marek watched them go, then went on.
Chris was looking for signs of murdered women and eviscerated babies, and he did not know whether to be disappointed or relieved that he saw none. In fact, he saw no women or children at all. "They've all run away or gone into hiding," Marek said. "There's been war for a long time here. People know what to do."
"Which way?" Kate said. She was in the front.
"Left, toward the main gate."
They turned left, going down a narrower street, and suddenly heard a shout behind them. They looked back, to see running soldiers coming toward them. Chris couldn't tell if the soldiers were chasing them or just running. But there was no point in waiting to find out.
Marek broke into a run; they all ran now, and after a while Chris glanced back to see the soldiers falling behind, and he felt a moment of odd pride; they were putting distance between them.
But Marek was taking no chances. Abruptly, he turned into a side street which had a strong and unpleasant odor. The shops here were all closed up, but narrow alleyways ran between them. Marek ran down one, which brought them to a fenced courtyard behind a shop. Within the courtyard stood huge wooden vats, and wooden racks beneath a shed. Here the stench was almost overpowering: a mixture of rotting flesh and feces.
It was a tannery.
"Quickly," Marek said, and they climbed over the fence, crouched down behind the reeking vats.
"Oof!" Kate said, holding her nose. "What is that smell?"
"They soak the skins in chicken shit," Chris whispered. "The nitrogen in the feces softens the leather."
"Great," she said.
"Dog shit, too."
Chris looked back and saw more vats, and hides hanging on the racks. Here and there, stinking piles of cheesy yellow material lay heaped on the ground - fat scraped from the inside of the skins.
Kate said, "My eyes burn."
Chris pointed to the white crust on the vats around them. These were lime vats, a harsh alkali solution that removed all the hair and remaining flesh after the skins were scraped. And it was the lime fumes that burned their eyes.
Then his attention was drawn to the alleyway, where he heard running feet and the clatter of armor. Through the fence he saw Robert de Kere with seven soldiers. The soldiers were looking in every direction as they ran - searching for them.
Why? Chris wondered, peering around the vat. Why were they still being pursued? What was so important about them that de Kere would ignore an enemy attack and try instead to kill them?
Apparently the searchers liked the smell in the alley no better than Chris did, because soon de Kere barked an order and they all ran back up the alley, toward the street.
"What was that about?" Chris whispered finally.
Marek just shook his head.
And then they heard men shouting, and again they heard the soldiers running back down the street. Chris frowned. How could they have overheard? He looked at Marek, who seemed troubled, too. From outside the courtyard, they heard de Kere shout: "Ici! Ici!" Probably, de Kere had left a man behind. That must be it, Chris thought. Because he hadn't whispered loudly enough to be heard. Marek started forward, then hesitated. Already de Kere and his men were climbing over the fence - eight men altogether; they could not fight them all.
"Andre," Chris said, pointing to the vat. "It's lye."
Marek grinned. "Then let's do it," he said, and he leaned against the vat.
They all put their shoulders against the wood and, with effort, managed to push the vat over. Frothing alkali solution sloshed onto the ground and flowed toward the soldiers. The odor was acrid. The soldiers instantly recognized what it was - any contact with that liquid would burn flesh - and they scrambled back up the fence, getting their feet off the ground. The fence posts began to sizzle and hiss when the lye touched them. The fence wobbled with the weight of all the men; they shouted and scrambled back into the alley.
"Now," Marek said. He led them deeper into the tanning yard, up over a shed, and then out into another alley.
It was now late afternoon, and the light was beginning to fade; ahead they saw the burning farmhouses, which cast hard flickering shadows on the ground. Earlier, there had been attempts to put out the fires, but they were now abandoned; the thatch burned freely, crackling as burning strands rose into the air.
They were following a narrow path that ran among pigsties. The pigs snorted and squealed, distressed by the fires that burned nearby.
Marek skirted the fires, heading toward the south gate, where they had first come in. But even from a distance, they could see that the gate was the scene of heavy fighting; the entrance was nearly blocked by the bodies of dead horses; Arnaut's soldiers had to scramble over the corpses to reach the defenders inside, who fought bitterly with axes and swords.
Marek turned away, doubling back through the farm area.
"Where are we going?" Chris said.
"Not sure," Marek said. He was looking up at the curtain wall around the town. Soldiers ran along it, heading toward the south gate to join in the fight. "I want to get up on that wall."
"Up on the wall?"
"There." He pointed to a narrow, dark opening in the wall, with steps going up. They emerged on top of the town wall. From their high vantage point, they could see that more of the town was being engulfed in flames; fires were closer to the shops. Soon all Castelgard would be burning. Marek looked over the wall at the fields beyond. The ground was twenty feet below. There were some bushes about five feet high, which looked soft enough to break their impact. But it was getting hard to see.
"Stay loose," he said. "Keep your body relaxed."
"Loose?" Chris said.
But already Kate had swung her body over and was hanging from the wall. She released her grip, and fell the rest of the way, landing on her feet like a cat. She looked up at them and beckoned.
"It's pretty far down," Chris said. "I don't want to break a leg. . . ."
From the right, they heard shouts. Three soldiers ran along the wall, their swords raised.
"Then don't," Marek said, and jumped. Chris jumped after him in the twilight, landed on the ground, grunting and rolling. He got slowly to his feet. Nothing broken.
He was feeling relieved and rather pleased with himself, when the first of the arrows whined past his ear and thunked into the ground between his feet. Soldiers were shooting at them from the wall above. Marek grabbed his arm and ran to dense undergrowth ten yards away. They dropped down and waited.
Almost immediately, more arrows whistled overhead, but this time they came from outside the castle walls. In the growing darkness, Chris could barely make out soldiers in green-and-black surcoats on the hill below.
"Those're Arnaut's men!" Chris said. "Why are they shooting at us?"
Marek didn't answer; he was crawling away, his belly flat to the ground. Kate crawled after him. An arrow hissed past Chris, so close that the shaft tore his doublet at the shoulder, and he felt a brief streak of pain.
He threw himself flat on the ground and followed them.
"There's good news and bad news," Diane Kramer said, walking into Doniger's office just before nine in the morning. Doniger was at his computer, pecking at the keyboard with one hand while he held a can of Coke in the other.
"Give me the bad news," Doniger said.
"Our injured people were taken to University Hospital. When they got there last night, guess who was on duty? The same doctor who treated Traub in Gallup. A woman named Tsosie."
"The same doctor works both hospitals?"
"Yes. She's mostly at UH, but she does two days a week at Gallup."
"Shit," Doniger said. "Is that legal?"
"Sure. Anyway, Dr. Tsosie went over our techs with a fine-tooth comb. She even put three of them through an MRI. She reserved the scanner specially, as soon as she heard it was an accident involving ITC."
"An MRI?" Doniger frowned. "That means she must have known that Traub was split."
"Yes," Kramer said. "Because apparently they put Traub through an MRI. So she was definitely looking for something. Physical defects. Body misalignments."
"Shit," Doniger said.
"She also made a big deal about her quest, getting everybody at the hospital huffy and paranoid, and she called that cop Wauneka in Gallup. It seems they're friends."
Doniger groaned. "I need this," he said, "like I need another asshole."
"Now you want the good news?"
"Wauneka calls the Albuquerque Police. The chief goes down to the hospital himself. Couple of reporters. Everybody sitting around waiting for the big news. They're expecting radioactive. They're expecting glow in the dark. Instead - big embarrassment. All the injuries are pretty minor. Mostly, it's flying glass. Even the shrapnel wounds are superficial; the metal's just embedded in the skin layer."
"Water shields must have slowed the fragments down," Doniger said.
"I think so, yes. But people are pretty disappointed. And then the final event - the MRI - the coup de grace - is a bust three times running. None of our people has any transcription errors. Because, of course, they're just techs. Albuquerque chief is pissed. Hospital administrator is pissed. Reporters leave to cover a burning apartment building. Meanwhile some guy with kidney stones almost dies because they can't do an MRI, because Dr. Tsosie's tied up the machine. Suddenly, she's worried about her job. Wauneka's disgraced. They both run for cover."
"Perfect," Doniger said, pounding the table. He grinned. "Those dipshits deserve it."
"And to top it all off," Kramer said triumphantly, "the French reporter, Louise Delvert, has agreed to come tour our facility."
"Next week. We'll give her the usual bullshit tour."
"This is starting to be an ultragood day," Doniger said. "You know, we might actually get this thing back in the bottle. Is that it?"
"The media people are coming at noon."
"That belongs under bad news," Doniger said.
"And Stern has found the old prototype machine. He wants to go back. Gordon said absolutely not, but Stern wants you to confirm that he can't go."
Doniger paused. "I say let him go."
"Bob. . . ."
"Why shouldn't he go?" Doniger said.
"Because it's unsafe as hell. That machine has minimal shielding. It hasn't been used in years, and it's got a history of causing big transcription errors on the people who did use it. He might not even come back at all."
"I know that." Doniger waved his hand. "None of that's core."
"What's core?" she said, confused.
"Do I hear an echo? Diane, think, for Christ's sake."
Kramer frowned, shook her head.
"Put it together. Baretto died in the first minute or two of the trip back. Isn't that right? Someone shot him full of arrows, right at the beginning of the trip."
"Yes. . . ."
"The first few minutes," Doniger said, "is the time when everybody is still standing around the machines, together, as a group. Right? So what reason do we have to think that Baretto got killed but nobody else?"
Kramer said nothing.
"What's reasonable is that whoever killed Baretto probably killed them all. Killed the whole bunch."
"Okay. . . ."
"That means they probably aren't coming back. The Professor isn't coming back. The whole group is gone. Now, it's unfortunate, but we can handle a group of missing people: a tragic lab accident where all the bodies were incinerated, or a plane crash, nobody would really be the wiser. . . ."
There was a pause.
"Except there's Stern," Kramer said. "He knows the whole story."
"So you want to send him back, too. Get rid of him as well. Clean sweep."
"Not at all," Doniger said promptly. "Hey, I'm opposed to it. But the guy's volunteering. He wants to help his friends. It'd be wrong for me to stand in the way."
"Bob," she said, "there are times when you are a real asshole."
Doniger suddenly started to laugh. He had a high-pitched, whooping, hysterical laugh, like a little kid. It was the way a lot of the scientists laughed, but it always reminded Kramer of a hyena.
"If you allow Stern to go back, I quit."
This made Doniger laugh even harder. Sitting in his chair, he threw back his head. It made her angry.
"I mean it, Bob."
He finally stopped giggling, wiped the tears from his eyes. "Diane, come on," he said. "I'm kidding. Of course Stern can't go back. Where's your sense of humor?"
Kramer turned to go. "I'll tell Stern that he can't go back," she said. "But you weren't kidding."
Doniger started laughing all over again. Hyena giggles filled the room. Kramer slammed the door angrily as she left.
For the last forty minutes, they had been scrambling up through the forest northeast of Castelgard. At last, they came to the top of the hill, the highest point in the area, and they could pause to catch their breath and look down.
"Oh my God," Kate said, staring.
They looked down on the river, and the monastery on the opposite side. But their attention was drawn to the forbidding castle high above the monastery: the fortress of La Roque. It was enormous! In the deepening blue of evening, the castle glowed with light from a hundred windows and from torches along the battlements. But despite the glowing lights, the fortress was ominous. The outer walls were black above the still waters of the moat. Inside was another complete set of walls, with many round towers, and at the center of the complex, the actual castle, with its own great hall, and a dark rectangular tower, rising more than a hundred feet into the air.
Marek said to Kate, "Does it look like modern La Roque?"
"Not at all," she said, shaking her head. "This thing is gigantic. The modern castle has only one outer wall. This one has two: an additional ring wall that is no longer there."
"So far as I know," Marek said, "nobody ever captured it by force."
"You can see why," Chris said. "Look how it's sited."
On the east and south side, the fortress was built atop a limestone cliff, a sheer drop of five hundred feet to the Dordogne below. On the west, where the cliff was less vertical, the stone houses of the town climbed up toward the castle, but anyone following the road through the town would end up facing a broad moat and several drawbridges. On the north, the land sloped more gently away, but all the trees on the north had been cut down, leaving an exposed plain without cover - a suicidal approach for any army.
Marek pointed. "Look there," he said.