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He sighed as he watched the riders cross a drawbridge over a moat and pass through a large gatehouse with half-round twin towers - a so-called double-D gate, because the towers looked like twin D's when seen from above. Soldiers atop the towers watched the riders as they passed through.
Beyond the gatehouse, the riders entered another enclosed courtyard. Here, many long wooden buildings had been erected. "That's where the troops are garrisoned," Kate said.
The party rode across this inner courtyard, crossed a second moat over a second drawbridge, passing through a second gatehouse with even larger twin towers: thirty feet high, and glowing with light from dozens of arrow slits.
Only then did they dismount, in the innermost court of the castle. The Professor was led by Oliver toward the great hall; they disappeared inside.
Kate said, "The Professor said that if we were separated, we should go to the monastery and find Brother Marcel, who has the key. I assume he meant the key to the secret passage."
Marek nodded. "And that's what we're going to do. It'll be dark soon. Then we can go."
Chris looked down the hill. In the gloom, he could see small bands of soldiers in the fields, all the way down to the river's edge. They would have to make their way past all those soldiers. "You want to go to the monastery tonight?"
Marek nodded. "However dangerous it looks now," he said, "tomorrow morning, it will be worse."
There was no moon. The sky was black and filled with stars, with the occasional drifting cloud. Marek led them down the hill and past the burning town of Castelgard, into a dark landscape. Chris was surprised to find that once his eyes adjusted, he could actually see quite well by starlight. Probably because there was no air pollution, he thought. He remembered reading that in earlier centuries, people could see the planet Venus during the day as we can now see the moon. Of course, that had been impossible for hundreds of years.
He was also surprised by the utter silence of the night. The loudest sound they heard was their feet moving through the grass and past the scrubby bushes.
"We'll go to the path," Marek whispered. "Then down to the river."
Their progress was slow. Frequently, Marek paused, crouching down to listen for two or three minutes before moving on. Almost an hour passed before they came within sight of the dirt path that ran from the town to the river. It was a pale streak against the darker grass and foliage that surrounded it.
Here Marek paused. The silence around them was complete. He heard only the faint sound of the wind. Chris felt impatient to get started. After a full minute of waiting, he started to get up.
Marek pushed him down.
He held his finger to his lips.
Chris listened. It was more than wind, he realized. There was also the sound of men whispering. He strained to hear. There was a quiet cough, somewhere ahead. Then another cough, closer, on their side of the road.
Marek pointed, left and right. Chris saw a faint silver glint - armor in starlight - among the bushes opposite the path.
And he heard rustling closer by.
It was an ambush, soldiers waiting on both sides of the path.
Marek pointed back the way they had come. Quietly, they moved away from the path.
"Where now?" Chris whispered.
"We'll stay away from the path. Go east to the river. That way." Marek pointed, and they set out.
Chris felt on edge now, straining to hear the slightest sound. Their own footsteps were so loud, they masked any other sound. He understood now why Marek had stopped so often. It was the only way to be sure.
They went back two hundred yards from the path, then headed down to the river, moving between the fields of cleared land. Even though it was nearly black, Chris felt exposed. The fields were walled in low stone, so they had a slight cover. But he was still uneasy, and he gave a sigh of relief when they moved back into uncleared shrub land, darker in the night.
This silent, black world was entirely alien to him, yet he quickly adjusted to it. Danger lay in the tiniest movements, in sounds that were almost inaudible. Chris moved in a crouch, tense, testing each footstep before applying full weight, his head constantly turning left and right, left and right.
He felt like an animal, and he thought of the way Marek had bared his teeth before the attack in the room, like some kind of ape. He looked over at Kate and saw that she, too, was crouched and tense as she moved forward.
For some reason, he found himself thinking of the seminar room on the second floor of the Peabody, back at Yale, with the cream-colored walls and the polished dark-wood trim, and of the arguments among the graduate students sitting around the long table: whether processual archaeology was primarily historical or primarily archaeological, whether formalist criteria outweighed objectivist criteria, whether derivationist doctrine concealed normative commitment.
It was no wonder they argued. The issues were pure abstractions, consisting of nothing but thin air - and hot air. Their empty debates could never be resolved; the questions could never be answered. Yet there had been so much intensity, so much passion in those debates. Where had it come from? Who cared? He couldn't quite remember now why it had been so important.
The academic world seemed to be receding into the distance, vague and gray in memory, as he made his way down the dark hillside toward the river. Yet however frightened he was on this night, however tense and at risk of his life, it was entirely real in some way that was reassuring, even exhilarating, and -
He heard a twig snap, and he froze.
Marek and Kate froze, too.
They heard soft rustling in the brush to the left, and a low snort. They stayed motionless. Marek gripped his sword.
And the small dark shape of a wild pig snuffled past them.
"Should have killed it," Marek whispered. "I'm hungry."
They started to continue forward, but then Chris realized that they were not the ones who had frightened the pig. Because now they heard, unmistakably, the sound of many running feet. Rustling, crashing in the underbrush. Coming toward them.
He could see enough in the darkness to catch glimpses of metal armor now and again. There must be seven or eight soldiers, moving hastily east, then dropping down, hiding in the brush again, becoming silent.
What the hell was going on?
These soldiers had been back at the dirt path, waiting for them. Now the soldiers had moved east, and were waiting for them again.
He looked at Kate, crouched beside him, but she just looked frightened.
Chris, also crouching, tapped Marek on the shoulder. Chris shook his head, then pointed deliberately to his own ear.
Marek nodded, listened. At first he heard nothing but the wind. Puzzled, he looked back at Chris, who made a distinct tapping motion against the side of his head, by his ear.
He was saying, Turn on your earpiece.
Marek tapped his ear.
After a brief crackle as the sound came on, he heard nothing. He shrugged at Chris, who held up his flat palms: Wait. Marek waited. Only after a few moments of quiet listening did he become aware of the soft, regular sound of a person breathing.
He looked at Kate and held his finger to his lips. She nodded. He looked at Chris. He nodded, too. They both understood. Make no noise at all.
Again, Marek listened intently. He still heard the sound of quiet breathing in his earpiece.
But it wasn't coming from any of them.
Chris whispered, "Andre. This is too dangerous. Let's not cross the river tonight."
"Right," Marek whispered. "We'll go back to Castelgard and hide out for the night outside the walls."
In the darkness, they nodded to each other, then they deliberately tapped their ears, turning their earpieces off.
And they crouched down to wait.
In a few moments, they heard the soldiers start to move, once again running through the underbrush. This time, they were going up the hill - back toward Castelgard.
They waited another five or six minutes. And then they headed down the hill, away from Castelgard.
It was Chris who had put it all together. Climbing down the hillside in the night, he had brushed a mosquito away from his ear, and the movement had inadvertently turned his earpiece on; not long afterward, he had heard someone sneeze.
And none of them had sneezed.
A few moments later, they had come upon the pig, and by then he was hearing someone panting with exertion. While Kate and Marek, in the darkness beside him, were not moving at all.
That was when he realized for certain that someone else had an earpiece - and thinking it over now, he had a pretty good idea where it had come from. Gomez. Somebody must have taken it from Gomez's severed head. The only problem with that idea was -
Marek nudged him. Pointed ahead.
Kate gave the thumbs-up sign and grinned.
Broad and flat, the river rippled and gurgled in the night. The Dordogne was wide at this point; they could barely see the far shore, a line of dark trees and dense undergrowth. They saw no sign of movement. Looking upstream, Chris could just make out the dark outline of the mill bridge. He knew the mill would be closed up at night; millers could work only during daylight hours, because even a candle risked causing an explosion in the dusty air.
Marek touched Chris on the arm, then pointed toward the opposite bank. Chris shrugged; he saw nothing.
Marek pointed again.
Squinting, Chris could barely discern four wisps of pale smoke rising into the sky. But if they came from fires, why was there no light?
Following the riverbank, they moved upstream, and eventually came upon a boat tied to the shore. It thunked against rocks in the current. Marek looked toward the opposite shore. They were now some distance from the smoke.
He pointed to the boat. Did they want to risk it?
The alternative, Chris knew, was to swim the river. The night was chilly; he didn't want to get wet. He pointed to the boat and nodded.
They climbed aboard, and Marek rowed them quietly across the Dordogne.
Sitting next to Chris, Kate found herself thinking of their conversation while crossing the river a few days earlier. How many days had it been? It must be only two days ago, she realized. But it seemed like weeks to her.
She squinted at the far shore, looking for any movement. Their boat would be a dark shape on dark water against a dark hill, but they would still be visible if anyone was looking.
But apparently no one was. The shore was closer now, and then with a hiss the boat moved into the grass along the banks and crunched to a soft stop. They climbed out. They saw a narrow dirt path that followed the edge of the river. Marek held his fingers to his lips, and started down the path. He was going toward the smoke.
They followed cautiously.
A few minutes later, they had their answer. There were four fires, placed at intervals along the riverbank. The flames were surrounded by pieces of broken armor atop mounds of earth, so that only the smoke was visible.
But there were no soldiers.
Marek whispered. "Old trick. Fires give false position."
Kate wasn't quite sure what the "old trick" was meant to accomplish. Perhaps to indicate greater strength, greater numbers, than you really had. Marek led them past the row of untended fires, toward several others ranged farther along the riverbank. They were close to the water, hearing the gurgling of the river. As they came to the last fire, Marek abruptly spun on his heel and dropped to the ground. Kate and Chris dropped, too, and then they heard voices, singing a repetitive drinking song; the lyrics were something about "Ale makes a man slumber by fire, ale makes a man wallow in mire. . . ."
It went on interminably. Listening to the lyrics, she thought: This is "Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall." And sure enough, as she raised her head to look, she saw half a dozen soldiers in green and black sitting around a fire, drinking and singing loudly. Perhaps they had been ordered to make enough noise to justify all the fires.
Marek pointed for them to go back, and when they had moved a distance away, he led them off to the left, away from the river. They left behind the cover of trees that lined the river, then were again slipping through open, cleared fields. She realized that these were the same fields where she had been that morning. And sure enough, now she could see on the left faint yellow lights in the upper windows of the monastery as some of the monks worked late. And the dark outlines of thatched farm huts, directly ahead.
Chris pointed toward the monastery. Why weren't they going there?
Marek made a pillow with his hands: Everybody sleeping.
Chris shrugged: So?
Marek pantomimed waking up, startled, alarmed. He seemed to mean that they would cause a commotion if they went in in the middle of the night.
Chris shrugged: So?
Marek wagged a finger: Not a good idea. He mouthed, In the morning.
Marek went past the farm huts, until he came to a burned-out farmhouse - four walls, and the black remains of timbers that had supported a thatched roof. He led them inside, through an open door that had a red streak across it. Kate could barely see it in the darkness.
Inside the hut was tall grass, and some pieces of broken crockery. Marek began rummaging through the grass, until he came up with two clay pots with cracked rims. They looked like chamber pots to Kate. Marek set them out carefully on one burned windowsill. She whispered, "Where do we sleep?"
Marek pointed to the ground.
"Why can't we go into the monastery?" she whispered, gesturing to the open sky above them. The night was cold. She was hungry. She wanted the comfort of an enclosed space.
"Not safe," Marek whispered. "We sleep here."
He lay on the ground and closed his eyes.
"Why isn't it safe?" she said.
"Because somebody has an earpiece. And they know where we're going."
Chris said, "I wanted to talk to you about - "
"Not now," Marek said without opening his eyes. "Go to sleep."
Kate lay down, and Chris lay beside her. She pushed her back against his. It was just for warmth. It was so damn cold.
In the distance, she heard the rumble of thunder.
Sometime after midnight it began to rain. She felt the heavy drops on her cheeks, and she got to her feet just as the downpour started. She looked around and saw a small wooden lean-to, partially burned but still standing. She crawled under it, sitting upright, again huddling together with Chris, who had joined her. Marek came over, lay down nearby, and immediately went back to sleep. She saw raindrops spatter his cheeks, but he was snoring.
Half a dozen hot-air balloons were rising above the mesas in the morning sun. It was now almost eleven o'clock. One of the balloons had a zigzag pattern, which reminded Stern of a Navajo sandpainting.
"I'm sorry," Gordon was saying. "But the answer is no. You can't go back in the prototype, David. It's just too dangerous."
"Why? I thought this was all so safe. Safer than a car. What's dangerous?"
"I told you we don't have transcription errors - the errors that occur during rebuilding," Gordon said. "But that's not precisely accurate."
"Ordinarily, it's true that we can't find any evidence of errors. But they probably occur during every trip. They're just too minor to detect. But like radiation exposure, transcription errors are cumulative. You can't see them after one trip, but after ten or twenty trips, the signs start to be visible. Maybe you have a small seam like a scar in your skin. A small streak in your cornea. Or maybe you begin to have noticeable symptoms, like diabetes, or circulatory problems. Once that happens, you can't go anymore. Because you can't afford to have the problems get worse. That means you've reached your trip limit."
"And that's happened?"
"Yes. To some lab animals. And to several people. The pioneers - the ones who used this prototype machine."
Stern hesitated. "Where are those people now?"
"Most of them are still here. Still working for us. But they don't travel anymore. They can't."
"Okay," Stern said, "but I'm only talking about one trip."
"And we haven't used or calibrated this machine for a long time," Gordon said. "It may be okay, and it may not be. Look: suppose I let you go back, and after you arrive in 1357, you discover you have errors so serious, you don't dare return. Because you couldn't risk more accumulation."
"You're saying I'd have to stay back there."
Stern said, "Has that ever happened to anybody?"
Gordon paused. "Possibly."
"You mean there's somebody back there now?"
"Possibly," Gordon said. "We're not sure."
"But this is very important to know," Stern said, suddenly excited. "You're telling me there might be somebody already back there who could help them."
"I don't know," Gordon said, "if this particular person would help."
"But shouldn't we tell them? Advise them?"
"There's no way to make contact with them."
"Actually," Stern said, "I think there is."
Shivering and cold, Chris awoke before dawn. The sky was pale gray, the ground covered by thin mist. He was sitting under the lean-to, his knees pulled up to his chin, his back against the wall. Kate sat beside him, still asleep. He shifted his body to look out, and winced with sudden pain. All his muscles were cramped and sore - his arms, his legs, his chest, everywhere. His neck hurt when he turned his head.
He was surprised to find the shoulder of his tunic stiff with dried blood. Apparently, the arrow the night before had cut him enough to cause bleeding. Chris moved his arm experimentally, sucking in his breath with pain, but he decided that he was all right.
He shivered in the morning damp. What he wanted now was a warm fire and something to eat. His stomach was growling. He hadn't eaten for more than twenty-four hours. And he was thirsty. Where were they going to find water? Could you drink water from the Dordogne? Or did they need to find a spring? And where were they going to find food?
He turned to ask Marek, but Marek wasn't there. He twisted to look around the farmhouse - sharp pain, lots of pain - but Marek was gone.
He had just begun to get to his feet when he heard the sound of approaching footsteps. Marek? No, he decided: he was hearing the footsteps of more than one person. And he heard the soft clink of chain mail.
The footsteps came close, then stopped. He held his breath. To the right, barely three feet from his head, a chain-mail gauntlet appeared through the open window and rested on the windowsill. The sleeve above the gauntlet was green, trimmed in black.
"Hic nemo habitavit nuper," a male voice said.
A reply came from the doorway. "Et intellego quare. Specta, porta habet signum rubrum. Estne pestilentiae?"
"Pestilentia? Certo scisne? Abeamus!"
The hand hastily withdrew, and the footsteps hurried away. His earpiece had translated none of it, because it was turned off. He had to rely on his Latin. What was pestilentia? Probably "plague." The soldiers had seen the mark on the door and had quickly moved away.
Jesus, he thought, was this a plague house? Is that why it had been burned down? Could you still catch the plague? He was wondering about this when to his horror a black rat scuttled out of the deep grass, and away through the door. Chris shivered. Kate awoke, and yawned. "What time is - "
He pressed his finger to her lips and shook his head.
He heard the men still moving away, their voices faint in the gray morning. Chris slid out from under the lean-to, crept to the window, and looked out cautiously.
He saw at least a dozen soldiers, all around them, wearing the green and black colors of Arnaut. The soldiers were methodically checking all the thatched cottages near the monastery walls. As Chris watched, he saw Marek walking toward the soldiers. Marek was hunched over, dragging one leg. He carried some greens in his hands. The soldiers stopped him. Marek bowed obsequiously. His whole body seemed small, weak-looking. He showed the soldiers what was in his hand. The soldiers laughed and shoved him aside. Marek walked on, still hunched and deferential.
Kate watched Marek walk past their burned-out farmhouse and disappear behind the monastery wall. He obviously wasn't going to come to them while the troops were still there.
Chris had crawled back under the lean-to, wincing. His shoulder seemed to be hurt; there was dried blood on the fabric. She helped him unbutton his doublet, and he screwed up his face and bit his lip. Gently, she pulled aside his loose-necked linen undershirt, and she saw that the entire left side of his chest was an ugly purple, with a yellowish black tinge at the edges. That must be where he had been hit by the lance.
Seeing the look on her face, he whispered, "Is it bad?"
"I think it's just a bruise. Maybe some cracked ribs."
"Hurts like hell."
She slid the shirt over his shoulder, exposing the arrow cut. It was a slanting two-inch tear across the skin surface, caked with dried blood.
"How is it?" he said, watching her face.
"Just a cut."
"No, it looks clean."
She pulled the doublet down farther, saw more purple bruising on his back and his side, beneath his arm. His whole body was one big bruise. It must be incredibly painful. She was amazed that he wasn't complaining more. After all, this was the same guy who threw fits if he was served dried cpe mushrooms instead of fresh ones in his morning omelette. Who could pout if he didn't like the choice of wine.
She started to button up his doublet for him. He said, "I can do that."
"I'll help you. . . ."
"I said, I can do it."
She pulled away, held her palms up. "Okay. Okay."
"I have to get these arms moving, anyway," he said, wincing with each button. He did them all up by himself. But afterward, he sat back against the wall, eyes closed, sweating from the exertion and the pain.
"Chris. . . ."
He opened his eyes. "I'm fine. Really, don't worry about me. I'm perfectly fine."
And he meant it.
She almost felt as if she were sitting next to a stranger.
When Chris had seen his shoulder and chest - it was the purple color of dead meat - his own reaction had surprised him. The injury was severe. He expected to feel horrified, or frightened. But instead, he felt suddenly light, almost carefree. The pain might be making him gasp for breath, but the pain didn't matter. He just felt glad to be alive, and facing another day. His familiar complaints, his cavils and his uncertainties seemed suddenly irrelevant. In their place, he discovered that he had some source of boundless energy - an almost aggressive vitality that he could not recall ever experiencing before. He felt it flowing through his body, a kind of heat. The world around him seemed more vivid, more sensuous than he could remember before.
To Chris, the gray dawn took on a pristine beauty. The cool, damp air bore a fragrance of wet grass and damp earth. The stones against his back supported him. Even his pain was useful because it burned away all unnecessary feeling. He felt stripped down, alert and ready for anything. This was a different world, with different rules.
And for the first time, he was in it.
Totally in it.
When the troops had gone, Marek returned. "Did you understand all that?" he said.
"The soldiers are searching for three people from Castelgard: two men and a woman."
"Arnaut wants to talk to them."
"Isn't it nice to be popular," Chris said with a wry smile. "Everyone's after us."
Marek gave them each a handful of wet grass and leaves. "Field greens. That's breakfast. Eat up."
Chris chewed the plants noisily. "Delicious," he said. He meant it.
"The plant with the jagged leaves is feverfew. It'll help with the pain. The white stalk is willow. Reduce your swelling."
"Thanks," Chris said. "It's very good."
Marek was staring at him in disbelief. He said to Kate, "Is he okay?"
"Actually, I think he's fine."
"Good. Eat up, and then we'll go to the monastery. If we can get past the guards."
Kate pulled off her wig. "That won't be a problem," she said. "They're looking for two men and a woman. So: who's got the sharpest knife?"
Fortunately, her hair was already short; it took only a few minutes for Marek to cut away the longer strands and finish the job. While he worked, Chris said, "I've been thinking about last night."
"Obviously, somebody's got an earpiece," Marek said.
"Right," Chris said. "And I think I know where they got it."
"Gomez," Marek said.
Chris nodded. "That's my guess. You didn't take it from her?"
"No. I didn't think to."
"I'm sure another person could push it far enough into his own ear to hear it, even if it doesn't really fit him."
"Yes," Marek said. "But the question is, who? This is the fourteenth century. A pink lump that talks in little voices is witchcraft. It'd be terrifying to anyone who found it. Whoever picked it up would drop it like a hot potato - and then crush it immediately. Or run like mad."
"I know," Chris said. "That's why every time I think about it, I can see only one possible answer."
Marek nodded. "Those bastards didn't tell us."
"Tell us what?" Kate said.
"That there's somebody else back here. Somebody from the twentieth century."
"It's the only possible answer," Chris said.
"But who?" Kate said.
Chris had been thinking about that all morning. "De Kere," he said. "It's got to be de Kere."
Marek was shaking his head.
"Consider," Chris said. "He's only been here a year, right? Nobody knows where he came from, right? He's wormed his way in with Oliver, and he hates all of us, because he knows we might do it, too, right? He leads his soldiers away from the tannery, goes all the way up the street, until we speak - and then he's right back on us. I'm telling you, it has to be de Kere."
"There's only one problem," Marek said. "De Kere speaks flawless Occitan."
"Well, so do you."
"No. I speak like a clumsy foreigner. You two listen to the translations in the earpiece. I listen to what they actually say. De Kere speaks like a native. He's completely fluent, and his accent exactly matches everybody else's. And Occitan is a dead language in the twentieth century. There's no way he could be from our century and speak like that. He's got to be a native."
"Maybe he's a linguist."
Marek was shaking his head. "It's not de Kere," he said. "It's Guy Malegant."
"No question," Marek said. "I've had my doubts about him ever since that time we were caught in the passage. Remember? We were almost perfectly silent in there - but he opens the door and catches us. He didn't even try to act surprised. He didn't draw his sword. Quite straightforward, shouting the alarm. Because he already knew we were there."
"But that's not how it happened. Sir Daniel came in," Chris said.
"Did he?" Marek said. "I don't remember him ever coming in."
"Actually," Kate said, "I think Chris might be right. It might be de Kere. Because I was in the alley between the chapel and the castle, pretty far up the chapel wall, and de Kere was telling the soldiers to kill you, and I remember I was too far away to hear them clearly, but I did."
Marek stared at her. "And then what happened?"
"Then de Kere whispered to a soldier. . . . And I couldn't hear what he said."
"Right. Because he didn't have an earpiece. If he had an earpiece, you would have heard everything, including whispers. But he didn't. It's Sir Guy. Who cut Gomez's head off? Sir Guy and his men. Who was most likely to go back to the body and retrieve the earpiece? Sir Guy. The other men were terrified of the flashing machine. Only Sir Guy was not afraid. Because he knew what it was. He's from our century."
"I don't think Guy was there," Chris said, "when the machine was flashing."
"But the clincher that it is Sir Guy," Marek said, "is that his Occitan is terrible. He sounds like a New Yorker, speaking through his nose."
"Well, isn't he from Middlesex? And I don't think he's well-born. I get the impression he was knighted for bravery, not family."
"He wasn't a good-enough jouster to take you out with the first lance," Marek said. "He wasn't a good-enough swordsman to kill me hand-to-hand. I'm telling you. It's Guy de Malegant."
"Well," Chris said, "whoever it is, now they know we're going to the monastery."
"That's right," Marek said, stepping away from Kate and looking at her hair appraisingly. "So let's go."
Kate touched her hair cautiously. She said, "Should I be glad I don't have a mirror?"
Marek nodded. "Probably."
"Do I look like a guy?"
Chris and Marek exchanged glances. Chris said, "Kind of."
"Yes. You do. You look like a guy."
"Close enough, anyway," Marek said.
They got to their feet.
The heavy wooden door opened a crack. From the darkness inside, a shadowed face in a white cowl peered out at them. "God grant you growth and increase," the monk said solemnly.
"God grant you health and wisdom," Marek replied in Occitan.
"What is your business?"
"We come to see Brother Marcel."
The monk nodded, almost as if he had been expecting them. "Certes, you may enter," the monk said. "You are in good time, for he is still here." He opened the door a little wider, so they were able to pass through, one at a time.
They found themselves in a small stone anteroom, very dark. They smelled a fragrant odor of roses and oranges. From within the monastery itself, they heard the soft sound of chanting.
"You may leave your weapons there," the monk said, pointing to the corner of the room.
"Good brother, I fear we cannot," Marek said.
"You have nothing to fear here," he said. "Disarm, or depart."
Marek started to protest, then unbuckled his sword.
The monk glided ahead of them down a quiet hallway. The walls were bare stone. They turned a corner and went down another hallway. The monastery was very large, and mazelike.
This was a Cistercian monastery; the monks wore white robes of plain cloth. The austerity of the Cistercian order stood as a deliberate reproach to the more corrupt orders of Benedictines and Dominicans. Cistercian monks were expected to keep rigid discipline, in an atmosphere of severe asceticism. For centuries, the Cistercians did not permit any carved decoration on their plain buildings, nor any decorative illustrations to their manuscripts. Their diet consisted of vegetables, bread and water, with no meats or sauces. Cots were hard; rooms were bare and cold. Every aspect of their monastic life was determinedly Spartan. But, in fact, this quality of rigid discipline had -
Marek turned toward the sound. They were coming into a cloister - an open court within the monastery, surrounded by arched passages on three sides, intended as a place of reading and contemplation.
Now they heard laughter. Noisy shouts of men.
As they came into the cloister, Marek saw that the fountain and garden in the center had been removed. The ground was bare, hard-packed dirt. Four men, sweating in linen smocks, were standing in the dirt, playing a kind of handball.
The ball rolled on the ground, and the men pushed and shoved each other, letting it roll. When it stopped, one man picked it up, cried, "Tenez!" and served the ball overhand, smacking it with his flat palm. The ball bounced off the side wall of the cloisters. The men yelled and jostled one another for position. Beneath the arches, monks and nobles shouted encouragement, clinking bags of gambling money in their hands.
There was a long wooden board attached to one wall, and every time a ball hit that board - making a loud bonk! - there were extra shouts of encouragement from the gamblers in the galleries.
It took Marek a moment to realize what he was looking at: the earliest form of tennis.
Tenez - from the server's shout, meaning, "Receive it!" - was a new game, invented just twenty-five years earlier, and it had become the instant rage of the period. Racquets and nets would come centuries later; for now, the game was a variety of handball, played by all classes of society. Children played in the streets. Among the nobility, the game was so popular that it provoked a trend to build new monasteries - which were abandoned unfinished, once the cloisters had been constructed. Royal families worried that princes neglected their instruction as knights in favor of long hours on the tennis court, often playing by torchlight far into the night. Gambling was ubiquitous. King John II of France, now captive in England, had, over the years, spent a small fortune to pay his tennis debts. (King John was known as John the Good, but it was said that whatever John was good at, it was certainly not tennis.)
Marek said, "Do you play here often?"
"Exercise invigorates the body and sharpens the mind," the monk replied immediately. "We play in two cloisters here."
As they passed through the cloister, Marek noticed that several of the gamblers wore robes of green, trimmed in black. They were rough, grizzled men with the manner of bandits.
Then they left the cloister behind, and went up a flight of stairs. Marek said to the monk, "It appears the order makes welcome the men of Arnaut de Cervole."
"That is sooth," the monk said, "for they shall do us a boon and return the mill to us."
"Was it taken?" Marek asked.
"In a manner of speaking." The monk walked to the window, which overlooked the Dordogne, and the mill bridge, a quarter mile upstream.
"With their own hands, the monks of Sainte-Mre have built the mill, at the bidding of our revered architect, Brother Marcel. Marcel is much venerated in the monastery. As you know, he was architect for the former Abbot, Bishop Laon. So the mill that he designed, and we built, is the property of this monastery, as are its fees.
"Yet Sir Oliver demands a mill tax to himself, though he has no just cause for it, except that his army controls this territory. Therefore my Lord Abbot is well pleased that Arnaut should vow to return the mill to the monastery, and end the tax. And thus are we friendly to the men of Arnaut."
Chris listened to all this, thinking, My thesis! It was all exactly as his research had shown. Although some people still thought of the Middle Ages as a backward time, Chris knew it had actually been a period of intense technological development, and in that sense, not so different from our own. In fact, the industrial mechanization that became a characteristic feature of the West first began in the Middle Ages. The greatest source of power available at the time - water power - was aggressively developed, and employed to do ever more kinds of work: not only grinding grain but fulling cloth, blacksmithing, beer mashing, woodworking, mixing mortar and cement, papermaking, rope making, oil pressing, preparing dyes for cloth, and powering bellows to heat blast furnaces for steel. All over Europe, rivers were dammed, and dammed again half a mile downstream; mill boats were tethered beneath every bridge. In some places, cascades of mills, one after another, successively used the energy of flowing water.
Mills were generally operated as a monopoly, and they provided a major source of income - and of conflict. Lawsuits, murders and battles were the constant accompaniment of mill activity. And here was an example that showed -
"And yet," Marek was saying, "I see the mill is still in the hands of Lord Oliver, for his pennant flies from the towers and his archers man the battlements."
"Oliver holds the mill bridge," the monk said, "because the bridge is close to the road to La Roque, and whoever controls the mill controls the road. But Arnaut will soon take the mill from them."
"And return it to you."
"And what will the monastery do for Arnaut in return?"
"We will bless him, of course," the monk said. And after a moment, he added, "And we will pay him handsomely, too."
They passed through a scriptorium, where monks sat in rows at their easels, silently copying manuscripts. But to Marek, it looked all wrong; instead of a meditative chant, their work was accompanied by the shouts and banging of the game in the cloister. And despite the old Cistercian proscription against illustration, many monks were painting illustrations in the corners and along the margins of manuscripts. The painters sat with an array of brushes and stone dishes of different colors. Some of the illustrations were brilliantly ornate.
"This way," the monk said, and led them down a staircase and into a small sunlit courtyard. To one side, Marek saw eight soldiers in the colors of Arnaut, standing in the sun. He noticed that they wore their swords.
The monk led them toward a small house at the edge of the courtyard, and then through a door. They heard the trickle of running water and saw a fountain with a large basin. They heard chanted prayers, in Latin. In the center of the room, two robed monks washed a naked, pale body lying on a table.
"Frater Marcellus," the monk whispered, giving a slight bow.
Marek stared. It took him a moment to realize what he was seeing.
Brother Marcel was dead.
Their reaction gave them away. The monk could clearly see that they had not known Marcel was dead. Frowning, he took Marek by the arm, and said, "Why are you here?"
"We had hoped to speak with Brother Marcel."
"He died last night."
"How did he die?" Marek said.
"We do not know. But as you can see, he was old."
"Our request of him was urgent," Marek said. "Perhaps if I could see his private effects - "
"He had no private effects."
"But surely some personal articles - "
"He lived very simply."
Marek said, "May I see his room?"
"I am sorry, that is not possible."
"But I would greatly appreciate it if - "
"Brother Marcel lived in the mill. His room has been there for many years."
"Ah." The mill was now under control of Oliver's troops. They could not go there, at least not at the moment.
"But perhaps I can help you. Tell me, what was your urgent request?" the monk asked. He spoke casually, but Marek was immediately cautious.
"It was a private matter," Marek said. "I cannot speak of it."
"There is nothing private here," the monk said. He was edging toward the door. Marek had the distinct feeling that he was going to raise an alarm.
"It was a request from Magister Edwardus."
"Magister Edwardus!" The monk's manner completely changed. "Why did you not say so? And what are you to Magister Edwardus?"
"Faith, we are his assistants."
"In deed, it is so."
"Why did you not say it? Magister Edwardus is welcome here, for he was performing a service for the Abbot when he was taken by Oliver."
"Come with me now at once," he said. "The Abbot will wish to see you."
"But we have - "
"The Abbot will wish it. Come!"
Back in the sunlight, Marek noticed how many more soldiers in green and black were now in the monastery courtyards. And these soldiers were not lounging; they were watchful, battle-ready.
The Abbot's house was small, made of ornately carved wood, and located in a far corner of the monastery. They were led inside to a small wood-paneled anteroom, where an older monk, hunched and heavy as a toad, sat before a closed door.
"Is my Lord Abbot within?"
"Faith, he is advising a penitent now."
From the adjacent room, they heard a rhythmic creaking sound.
"How long will he keep her at her prayers?" the monk asked.
"It may be a goodly while," the toad said. "She is recidive. And her sins are oft repeated."
"I would you make known these worthy men to our Lord Abbot," the monk said, "for they bring news of Edwardus de Johnes."
"Be assured I shall tell him," the toad said in a bored tone. But Marek caught the gleam of sudden interest in the old man's eyes. Some meaning had registered.
"It is nigh on terce," the toad said, glancing up at the sun. "Will your guests dine on our simple fare?"
"Many thanks, but no, we shall - " Chris coughed. Kate poked Marek in the back. Marek said, "We shall, if it is not a great trouble."
"By the grace of God, you are welcome."
They were starting to leave for the dining room when a young monk ran breathlessly into the room. "My Lord Arnaut is coming! He will see the Abbot at once!"
The toad jumped to his feet and said to them, "Be you gone now." And he opened a side door.
Which was how they found themselves in a small, plain room adjacent to the Abbot's quarters. The squeaking of the bed stopped; they heard the low murmur of the toad, who was speaking urgently to the Abbot.
A moment later, another door opened and a woman came in, bare-legged, hastily adjusting her clothes, her face flushed. She was extremely beautiful. When she turned, Chris saw with astonishment that it was the Lady Claire.
She caught his look and said, "Why stare you thus?"
"Uh, my Lady . . ."
"Squire, your countenance is most unjust. How dare you judge me? I am a gentle woman, alone in a foreign part, with no one to champion me, to protect or guide me. Yet I must make my way to Bordeaux, eighty leagues distant, and thence to England if I am to claim my husband's lands. That is my duty as a widow, and in this time of war and tumult, I shall without hesitation do all that may be required to accomplish it."
Chris was thinking that hesitation was not a part of this woman's character. He was stunned by her boldness. On the other hand, Marek was looking at her with open admiration. He said smoothly, "Pray forgive him, Lady, for he is young and often thoughtless."
"Circumstances change. I had need of an introduction that only the Abbot could make for me. What persuasion is in my command, I use." The Lady Claire was hopping on one foot now, trying to keep her balance while pulling on her hose. She drew the hose tight, smoothed her dress, and then set her wimple on her head, tying it expertly beneath her chin, so only her face was exposed.
Within moments, she looked like a nun. Her manner became demure, her voice lower, softer.
"Now, by happenstance, you know what I had intended no person to know. In this, I am at your mercy, and I beg your silence."
"You shall have it," Marek said, "for your affairs are none of ours."
"You shall have my silence in return," she said. "For it is evident the Abbot does not wish your presence known to de Cervole. We shall all keep our secrets. Have I your word?"
"In sooth, yes, Lady," Marek said.
"Yes, Lady," Chris said.
"Yes, Lady," Kate said.
Hearing her voice, Claire frowned at Kate, then walked over to her. "Say you true?"
"Yes, Lady," Kate said, again.
Claire ran her hand over Kate's chest, feeling the breasts beneath the flattening cloth band. "You have cut your hair, damsel," she said. "You know that to pass as a man is punishable by death?" She glanced at Chris as she said this.
"We know it," Marek said.
"You must have great dedication to your Magister, to give up your sex."
"My Lady, I do."
"Then I pray most earnestly that you survive."
The door opened, and the toad gestured to them. "Worthies, come. My Lady, pray remain, the Abbot will do your bidding soon enough. But you worthies - come with me."
Outside in the courtyard, Chris leaned close to Marek and whispered, "Andre. That woman is poison."
Marek was smiling. "I agree she has a certain spark. . . ."
"Andre. I'm telling you. You can't trust anything she says."
"Really? I thought she was remarkably straightforward," Marek said. "She wants protection. And she is right."
Chris stared. "Protection?"
"Yes. She wants a champion," Marek said, thoughtfully.
"A champion? What are you talking about? We have only - how many hours left?"
Marek looked at his wristband. "Eleven hours ten minutes."
"So: what are you talking about, a champion?"
"Oh. Just thinking," Marek said. He threw his arm over Chris's shoulder. "It's not important."
They were seated at a long table with many monks in a large hall, a steaming bowl of meat soup in front of them, and in the center of the table, platters piled high with vegetables, beef and roast capons. And no one moving a muscle, but all heads bowed in prayer, as the monks chanted.
Pater noster qui es in coelis
Sanctivicetur nomen tuum
Adveniat regnum tuum
Fiat voluntas tua
Kate kept sneaking looks at the food. The capons were steaming! They looked fat, and yellow juice flowed onto the plates. Then she noticed that the monks nearest her seemed puzzled by her silence. She should know this chant, it seemed.
Beside her, Marek was chanting loudly.
Panem nostrum quotidianum
Da nobie hodie
Et dimmitte nobis debita nostra
She didn't understand Latin, and she couldn't join in, so she stayed silent until the final "Amen."
The monks all looked up, nodded to her. She braced herself: she had been fearing this moment. Because they would speak to her, and she wouldn't be able to answer back. What would she do?
She looked at Marek, who seemed perfectly relaxed. Of course he would be; he spoke the language.
A monk passed a platter of beef to her, saying nothing. In fact, the entire room was silent. The food was passed without a word; there was no sound at all except for the soft clink of plates and knives. They ate in silence!
She took the platter, nodding, and gave herself one large helping, then another, until she caught Marek's disapproving glance. She handed the platter to him.
From the corner of the room, a monk began to read a text in Latin, the words a kind of cadence in her ears, while she ate hungrily. She was famished! She could not remember when she had enjoyed a meal more. She glanced at Marek, who was eating with a quiet smile on his face. She turned to her soup, which was delicious, and after a moment, she glanced back at Marek.
He wasn't smiling anymore.
Marek had been keeping an eye on the entrances. There were three to this long rectangular room: one to his right, one to his left, and one directly opposite them, in the center of the room.
Moments before, he had seen a group of soldiers in green and black gathering near the doorway to the right. They peered in, as if interested in the meal, but remained outside.
Now he saw a second group of soldiers, standing in the doorway directly ahead. Kate looked at him, and he leaned very close to her ear and whispered, "Left door." The monks around them shot disapproving glances. Kate looked at Marek and gave a little nod, meaning she understood.
Where did the left-hand doorway lead? There were no soldiers at that door, and the room beyond was dark. Wherever it went, they would have to risk it. He caught Chris's eye and gave a small jerk with his thumb: time to get up.
Chris nodded almost imperceptibly. Marek pushed away his soup and started to get up, when a white-robed monk came up to him, leaned close, and whispered, "The Abbot will see you now."
The Abbot of Sainte-Mre was an energetic man in his early thirties, with the body of an athlete and the sharp eye of a merchant. His black robes were elegantly embroidered, his heavy necklace was gold, and the hand he extended to be kissed bore jewels on four fingers. He met them in a sunny courtyard and then walked side by side with Marek, while Chris and Kate trailed behind. There were green-and-black soldiers everywhere. The Abbot's manner was cheerful, but he had the habit of abruptly changing the subject, as if to catch his listener off guard.
"I am heartfelt sorry for these soldiers," the Abbot said, "but I fear intruders have entered the monastery grounds - some men of Oliver - and until we find them, we must be cautious. And my Lord Arnaut has graciously offered us his protection. You have eaten well?"
"By the grace of God and your own, very well, my Lord Abbot."
The Abbot smiled pleasantly. "I dislike flattery," he said. "And our order forbids it."
"I shall be mindful," Marek said.
The Abbot looked at the soldiers and sighed. "So many soldiers ruin the game."
"What game is that?"
"The game, the game," he said impatiently. "Yesterday morning we went hunting and returned haveless, with not so much as a roebuck to show. And the men of Cervole had not yet arrived. Now they are here - two thousand of them. What game they do not take, they frighten off. It will be months before the forests settle again. What news of Magister Edwardus? Tell me, for I am sore in need to have it."
Marek frowned. The Abbot did indeed appear tense, chafing to hear. But he seemed to be expecting specific information.
"My Lord Abbot, he is in La Roque."
"Oh? With Sir Oliver?"
"Yes, my Lord Abbot."
"Most unfortunate. Did he give you a message for me?" He must have seen Marek's puzzled look. "No?"
"My Lord Abbot, Edwardus gave me no message."
"Perhaps in code? Some trivial or mistaken turn of phrase?"
"I am sorry," Marek said.
"Not so sorry as I. And now he is in La Roque?"
"He is, my Lord Abbot."
"Sooth, I would not have it so," the Abbot said. "For I think La Roque cannot be taken."
"Yet if there is a secret passage to the inside . . . ," Marek said.
"Oh, the passage, the passage," the Abbot said, giving a wave of his hand. "It will be my undoing. It is all that I hear spoken. Every man wishes to know the passage - and Arnaut more than any of them. The Magister was assisting me, searching the old documents of Marcellus. Are you certain he said nothing to you?"
"He said we were to seek Brother Marcel."
The Abbot snorted. "Certes, this secret passage was the work of Laon's assistant and scribe, who was Brother Marcel. But for the last years, old Marcel was not well in spirit. That is why we let him live in the mill. All through the day, he muttered and mumbled to himself, and then of a sudden he would cry out that he saw demons and spirits, and his eyes rolled in his head, and his limbs thrashed wildly, until the visions passed." The Abbot shook his head. "The other monks venerated him, seeing his visions as proof of piety, and not of disorder, which in truth it was. But why did the Magister tell you to seek him out?"
"The Magister said Marcel had a key."
"A key?" the Abbot said. "A key?" He sounded very annoyed. "Of course he had a key, he had many keys, and they are all to be found in the mill, but we cannot - " He stumbled forward, then stared with a shocked expression at Marek.
All around the courtyard, men were shouting, pointing upward.
Marek said, "My Lord Abbot - "
The Abbot spat blood and collapsed into Marek's arms. Marek eased him to the ground. He felt the arrow in the Abbot's back even before he saw it. More arrows whistled down and thunked, quivering, in the grass beside them.
Marek looked up and saw maroon figures in the bell tower of the church, firing rapidly. An arrow ripped Marek's hat from his head; another tore through the sleeve of his tunic. Another arrow stuck deep in the Abbot's shoulder.
The next arrow struck Marek in the thigh. He felt searing red-hot pain streak down his leg, and he lost his balance, falling back on the ground. He tried to get up, but he was dizzy and his balance had deserted him. He fell back again as arrows whistled down all around him.
On the opposite side of the courtyard, Chris and Kate ran for cover through the rain of arrows. Kate yelled and stumbled, fell to the ground, an arrow sticking in her back. Then she scrambled up, and Chris saw it had torn through her tunic beneath her armpit but had not struck her. An arrow skinned his leg, tearing his hose. And then they reached the covered passageway, where they collapsed behind one of the arches, catching their breath. Arrows clattered off the stone walls and struck the stone arches all around them. Chris said, "You okay?"