- Text Font:
- Text Size:
- Line Height:
- Line Break Height:
Following, Chris nudged Kate. "That's him."
"That knight? You're kidding."
"Look how the soldiers behave."
"Arnaut saved our lives," Kate said.
Chris was aware of the irony. In twentieth-century historical accounts of this time, Sir Oliver was portrayed as something close to a soldier-saint, while de Cervole was a black figure, "one of the great evildoers of his age," in the words of one historian. Yet apparently the truth was just the opposite of the histories. Oliver was a despicable rogue, and Cervole a dashing exemplar of chivalry - to whom they now owed their lives.
Kate said, "What about Andre?"
Chris shook his head.
"Are you sure?"
"I think so. I think I saw him in the river."
Kate said nothing.
Outside the church of Sainte-Mre were long rows of men, standing with their hands bound behind their backs, waiting to go inside. They were mostly soldiers of Oliver in maroon and gray, with a few peasants in rough garb. Chris guessed there were forty or fifty men in all. As they went past, the men stared sullenly at them. Some of them were wounded; they all seemed weary.
One man, a soldier in maroon, said sarcastically to another, "There goes the bastard lord of Narbonne. He does the work too dirty even for Arnaut."
Chris was still trying to understand this when the handsome knight whirled. "Say you so?" he cried, and he grabbed a fistful of the man's hair, jerked his head up, and with his other hand slashed his throat with a dagger. Blood gushed down the man's chest. The man remained standing for a moment, making a kind of rasping sound.
"You have made your last insult," the handsome knight said. He stood, smiling at the man, watching as the blood flowed, grinning as the man's eyes widened in horror. Still the man remained standing. To Chris, he seemed to stand forever, but it must have been thirty or forty seconds. The handsome knight just watched silently, never moving, the smile never leaving his face.
Finally the man fell to his knees, head bowed, as if in prayer. The knight calmly put his foot under the man's chin and kicked him so he fell backward. He continued to watch the man's death gasps, which continued for another minute or so. At last he died.
The handsome knight bent over, wiped his blade on the man's hose, and wiped his bloody shoe on his jerkin. Then he nodded to Chris and Kate.
And they entered the church of Sainte-Mre.
The interior was hazy with smoke. The ground floor was a large open space; there would be no benches or pews for another two hundred years. They stood at the back, with the handsome knight, who seemed content to wait. Off to one side, they saw several soldiers in a tight, whispering knot.
A solitary knight in armor was down on his knees in the center of the church, praying.
Chris turned back to look at the other knights. They seemed to be in the middle of some intense dispute; their whispers were furious. But he could not imagine what it was about.
While they waited, Chris felt something drip on his shoulder. Looking up, he saw a man hanging directly above him, twisting slowly on a rope. Urine dribbled down his leg. Chris stepped away from the wall and saw half a dozen bodies, hands tied behind their backs, hanging from ropes tied to the second-floor balustrade. Three wore the red surcoat of Oliver. Two others had peasant garb, and the last wore the white habit of a monk. Two more men sat on the floor, watching silently as more ropes were tied above; they were passive, apparently resigned to their fate.
In the center of the room, the man in armor crossed himself and got to his feet. The handsome knight said, "My Lord Arnaut, here are the assistants."
"Eh? What do you say? Assistants?"
The knight turned. Arnaut de Cervole was about thirty-five years old and wiry, with a narrow, unpleasant, cunning face. He had a facial tic that made his nose twitch and gave him the appearance of a sniffing rat. His armor was streaked with blood. He looked at them with bored, lazy eyes. "You say they are assistants, Raimondo?"
"Yes, my Lord. The assistants of Magister Edwardus."
"Ah." Arnaut walked around them. "Why are they wet?"
"We pulled them from the river, my Lord," Raimondo said. "They were in the mill and escaped at the last minute."
"Oh so?" Arnaut was bored no longer. His eyes gleamed with interest. "I pray you tell me, how did you destroy the mill?"
Chris cleared his throat and said, "My Lord, we did not."
"Oh?" Arnaut frowned. He looked at the other knight. "What speech is this? He is incomprehensible."
"My Lord, they are Irishers, or perhaps Hebrideans."
"Oh? Then they are not English. That is something in their favor." He circled them, then stared at their faces. "Do you understand me?"
Chris said, "Yea, my Lord." That seemed to be understood.
"Are you English?"
"No, my Lord."
"Faith, you do not appear it. You look too mild and unwarlike." He looked at Kate. "He is as fresh as a young girl. And this one . . ." He squeezed Chris's biceps. "He is a clerk or a scribe. Certes he is not English." Arnaut shook his head, his nose twitching.
"Because the English are savages," he said loudly, his voice echoing in the smoky church. "You agree?"
"We do, my Lord," Chris said.
"The English know no way of life except endless dissatisfaction and interminable strife. They are always murdering their own kings; it is their savage custom. Our Norman brethren conquered them and tried to teach them civilized ways, but of course they failed. Saxon blood is too deeply barbaric. The English delight in destruction, death and torture. Not content to fight among themselves on their wretched chilly island, they bring their armies here, to this peaceful and prosperous land, and wreak havoc on a simple people. You agree?"
Kate nodded, gave a bow.
"As you should," Arnaut said. "Their cruelty is unsurpassed. You know their old king? The second Edward? You know how they chose to assassinate him, with a red-hot poker? And that, to a king! Little wonder they treat our countryside with even greater savagery."
He strode back and forth. Then turned again to them.
"And the man who next took power, Hugh Despenser. According to the English custom, in due course he too must be killed. You know how? He was tied to a ladder in a public square, and his privates were cut off his body and burned in front of his face. And that was before he was beheaded! Eh? Charmant."
Again he looked at them for agreement. Again, they nodded.
"And now the latest king, Edward III, has learned the lesson of his forebears - that he must perpetually lead a war, or risk death at the hands of his own subjects. Thus he and his dastard son, the Prince of Wales, bring their barbarian ways to France, a country that knew not savage war until they came to our soil with their chevauchees, murdered our commoners, raped our women, slaughtered our animals, ruined our crops, destroyed our cities and ended our trade. For what? So that bloodthirsty English spirits may be occupied abroad. So that they can steal fortunes from a more honorable land. So that every English Lady can serve her guests from French plates. So that they can claim to be honorable knights, when they do nothing more valiant than hack children to death."
Arnaut paused in his tirade and looked back and forth between their faces, his eyes restless, suspicious. "And that is why," he said, "I cannot understand why you have joined the side of the English swine, Oliver."
Chris said quickly, "Not true, my Lord."
"I am not patient. Say sooth: you aid Oliver, for your Magister is in his employ."
"No, my Lord. The Magister is taken against his will."
"Against . . . his . . ." Arnaut threw up his hands in disgust. "Who can tell me what this drowned rascal says?"
The handsome knight approached them. "My English is good," he said. To Chris: "Spek ayain." Speak again.
Chris paused, thinking, then said, "Magister Edwardus . . ."
"Yes. . . ."
". . . is prisoner."
"Priz-un-ner?" The handsome knight frowned, puzzled. "Pris-ouner?"
Chris had the feeling that the knight's English was not as good as he thought. He decided to try his Latin again, poor and archaic as it was. "Est in carcere - captus - heri captus est de coenobio sanctae Mariae." He hoped that meant "He was captured from Sainte-Mre yestermorn."
The knight raised his eyebrows. "Invite?" Against his will?
"Sooth, my Lord."
The knight said to Arnaut, "They say Magister Edwardus was taken from the monastery yesterday against his will and is now Oliver's prisoner."
Arnaut turned quickly, peered closely at their faces. In a low, threatening voice: "Sed vos non capti estis. Nonne?" Yet you were not taken?
Chris paused again. "Uh, we . . ."
"No, no, my Lord," Chris said hastily. "Uh, non. We escaped. Uh, ef - effugi - i - imus. Effugimus." Was that the right word? He was sweating with tension.
Apparently it was good enough, because the handsome knight nodded. "They say they escaped."
Arnaut snapped, "Escaped? From where?"
Chris: "Ex Castelgard heri. . . ."
"You escaped from Castelgard yesterday?"
"Etiam, mi domine." Yes, my Lord.
Arnaut stared at him, said nothing for a long time. On the second-floor balcony, the men had ropes put around their necks and then were pushed over. The fall did not break their necks, and so they hung there, making gargling sounds and writhing as they slowly died.
Arnaut looked up at them as if annoyed to be interrupted by their death gasps. "A few ropes remain," he said. He looked back at them. "I will have the truth from you."
Chris said, "I tell you sooth, my Lord."
Arnaut spun on his heel. "Did you speak to the monk Marcel before he died?"
"Marcel?" Chris did his best to appear confused. "Marcel, my Lord?"
"Yes, yes. Marcel. Cognovistine fratrem Marcellum?" Do you know Brother Marcel?
"No, my Lord."
"Transitum ad Roccam cognitum habesne?" For this Chris didn't need to wait for the translation: The passage to La Roque, you know it?
"The passage . . . transitum . . ." Chris shrugged again, feigning lack of knowledge. "Passage? . . .To La Roque? No, my Lord."
Arnaut looked frankly unbelieving. "It seems you know nothing at all." He peered closely at them, his nose twitching, giving the impression that he was smelling them. "I doubt you. In fact, you are liars."
He turned to the handsome knight. "Hang one, so the other talks."
"Which one, my Lord?"
"Him," Arnaut said, pointing to Chris. He looked at Kate, pinched her cheek, then caressed her. "Because this fair boy touches my heart. I will entertain him in my tent tonight. I would not waste him before."
"Very well, my Lord." The handsome knight barked an order, and from the second floor, men began to string another rope. Other men grabbed Chris's wrists and tied them swiftly behind his back.
Chris thought, Jesus, they're going to do it. He looked at Kate, whose eyes were wide with horror. The men started to drag Chris off.
"My Lord," came a voice from the side of the church. "If you please." The knot of waiting soldiers opened, and the Lady Claire emerged.
Claire said softly, "My Lord, I beg you, a word in private."
"Eh? Of course, as you wish." Arnaut walked over to her, and she whispered in his ear. He paused, shrugged. She whispered again, more intently.
After a moment, he said, "Eh? What will that serve?"
More whispering. Chris could not hear any of it.
Arnaut said, "Good Lady, I have already decided."
Still more whispering.
Finally, shaking his head, Arnaut came back to them. "The Lady seeks safe passage from me to Bordeaux. She says that she knows you, and that you are honest men." He paused. "She says that I should release you."
Claire said, "Only if it please you, my Lord. For it is well known the English are indiscriminate in killing, while the French are not. The French show the mercy that comes of intelligence and breeding."
"This is so," he said. "It is true that we French are civilized men. And if these two know nothing of Brother Marcel and the passage, then I have no further use of them. And so I say, give them horses and food and send them on their way. I would be in the good graces of your Magister Edwardus, and so I commend myself to him, and wish God grant you safe journey to join him at his side. And so depart."
Lady Claire bowed.
Chris and Kate bowed.
The handsome knight cut Chris's bonds and led them back outside. Chris and Kate were so stunned by this reversal that they said nothing at all as they walked back toward the river. Chris was feeling wobbly and lightheaded. Kate kept rubbing her face, as if she were trying to wake up.
Finally, the knight said, "You owe your lives to a clever lady."
Chris said, "Certes. . . ."
The handsome knight smiled thinly.
"God smiles upon you," he said.
He didn't sound happy about it.
The scene at the river was entirely transformed. Arnaut's men had taken the mill bridge, which now flew the green-and-black banner from the battlements. Both sides of the river were occupied by Arnaut's mounted knights. And now a river of men and materiel marched up the road toward La Roque, raising clouds of dust. There were men with horse-drawn wagons laden with supplies, carts of chattering women, ragtag children, and other wagons loaded with enormous wooden beams - disassembled giant catapults, to fling stones and burning pitch over the castle walls.
The knight had found a pair of horses for them - two ragged nags, bearing marks of the plow collar. Leading the animals, he guided them past the toll checkpoint.
A sudden commotion on the river made Chris look back. He saw a dozen men knee-deep in the water, struggling with a breech-loading cannon, cast of iron, with a wooden block as a mount. Chris stared, fascinated. No cannon this early had survived, or even been described.
Everyone knew primitive artillery had been used at this time; archaeologists had dug up cannonballs from the site of the Battle of Poitiers. But historians believed that cannon were rare, and primarily for show - a matter of prestige. But as Chris watched the men struggling in the river to lift the cylinder and hoist it back on a cart, it was clear to him that such effort would never be wasted on a purely symbolic device. The cannon was heavy; it slowed the progress of the entire army, which surely wanted to reach the walls of La Roque by nightfall; there was no reason why the cannon could not be brought up later. The present effort could only mean the cannon would be important in the attack.
But in what way? He wondered. The walls of La Roque were ten feet thick. A cannonball would never penetrate them.
The handsome knight gave a brief salute and said, "God bring you grace and safety."
"God bless you and grant you increase," Chris replied, and then the knight slapped the horses on their rumps, and they were riding off, toward La Roque.
As they rode, Kate told him about what they had found in Marcel's room, and about the green chapel.
"Do you know where this chapel is?" Chris said.
"Yes. I saw it on one of the survey maps. It's about half a mile east of La Roque. There's a path through the forest that takes you there."
Chris sighed. "So we know where the passage is," he said, "but Andre had the ceramic, and now he's dead, which means we can't ever leave, anyway."
"No," she said. "I have the ceramic."
"Andre gave it to me, on the bridge. I think he knew he'd never get out alive. He could have run and saved himself. But he didn't. He stayed and saved me instead."
She started to cry softly.
Chris rode in silence, saying nothing. He remembered how Marek's intensity had always amused the other graduate students - "Can you imagine? He really believes this chivalry shit!" - and how they had assumed his behavior was some kind of weird posturing. A role he was playing, an affectation. Because in the late twentieth century, you couldn't seriously ask other people to think that you believed in honor and truth, and the purity of the body, the defense of women, the sanctity of true love, and all the rest of it.
But apparently, Andre really had believed it.
They moved through a nightmare landscape. The sun was weak and pale in the dust and smoke. Here there were vineyards, but all the vines were burned, leaving gnarled gnome stumps, with smoke rising into the air. The orchards, too, were black and desolate, skeletal trees. Everything had been burned.
All around them, they heard the pitiful cries of wounded soldiers. Many retreating soldiers had fallen beside the road itself. Some were still breathing; others were gray with death.
Chris had paused to take weapons from one of the dead men, when a nearby soldier raised his hand and cried pitifully, "Secors, secors!" Chris went over to him. He had an arrow embedded deep in his abdomen, and another in his chest. The soldier was in his early twenties, and he seemed to know he was dying. As he lay on his back, he looked pleadingly at Chris, saying words Chris couldn't understand. Finally, the soldier began to point to his mouth, saying, "Aquam. Da mihi aquam." He was thirsty; he wanted water. Chris shrugged helplessly. He had no water. The man looked angry, winced, closed his eyes, turned away. Chris moved off. Later, when they passed men crying for help, he continued on without stopping. There was nothing he could do.
They could see La Roque in the distance, standing high and impregnable atop the Dordogne cliffs. And they would reach the fortress in less than an hour.
In a dark corner of the church of Sainte-Mre, the handsome knight helped Andre Marek to his feet. He said, "Your friends have departed."
Marek coughed, and grabbed the knight's arm to steady himself as a wave of pain shot up his leg. The handsome knight smiled. He had captured Marek just after the explosion at the mill.
When Marek had climbed out the mill window, by sheer luck he fell into a small pool so deep that he did not hurt himself. And when he came to the surface again, he found he was still beneath the bridge. The pool produced a swirling eddy, so the current hadn't taken him downstream.
Marek had stripped off his monk's habit and thrown it downstream when the flour mill exploded, timbers and bodies flying in all directions. A soldier splashed into the water near him, his body turning in the eddy. Marek started to scramble up onto the bank - and a handsome knight put a sword point at his throat and beckoned for him to come forward. Marek was still wearing the maroon and gray colors of Oliver, and he began to babble in Occitan, pleading innocence, begging for mercy.
The knight said simply, "Be silent. I saw you." He had seen Marek climb out the window, and discard his monk's garb. He took Marek to the church, where he found Claire and Arnaut. The Archpriest was in a sullen and dangerous mood, but Claire seemed to have some ability to influence him, if only by contradiction. It was Claire who had ordered Marek to sit silently in the darkness when Chris and Kate came in. "If Arnaut can set you against the other two, he may yet spare you and your friends. If you are three united before him, he will in rage kill you all." Claire had stage-managed the subsequent events. And all had turned out reasonably well.
Now Arnaut eyed him skeptically. "So: your friends know the location of this passage?"
"They do," Marek said. "I swear it."
"On your word, I have spared their lives," Arnaut said. "Yours, and the word of this Lady, who vouches for you." He gave a small nod to the Lady Claire, who allowed a faint smile to cross her lips.
"My Lord, you are wise," Claire said, "for to hang one man may loosen the tongue of his friend who watches. But as often, it may harden his resolve, so that the friend takes his secret to the grave. And this secret is so important that I would your Lordship have it for certain in his grasp."
"Then we will follow those two, and see where they lead." He nodded to Marek. "Raimondo, see to this poor man's mount. And provide him as escort two of your best chevaliers, as you follow behind."
The handsome knight bowed. "My Lord, if it please you, I will accompany him myself."
"Do so," Arnaut said, "for there may yet be some mischief here." And he gave the knight a significant look.
Meanwhile, Lady Claire had gone up to Marek and was pressing his hand warmly in both of hers. He felt something cool in her fingers, and realized it was a tiny dagger, barely four inches long. He said, "My Lady, I am greatly in your debt."
"Then see you repay this debt, knight," she said, looking into his eyes.
"I shall, as God is my witness." He slipped the dagger under his robes.
"And I will pray to God for you, knight," she said. She leaned over to kiss his cheek chastely. As she did, she whispered, "Your escort is Raimondo of Narbonne. He likes to cut throats. When he knows the secret, have a care he does not cut yours, and those of your friends, as well." She stepped away, smiling.
Marek said, "Lady, you are too kind. I shall take your kind wishes to heart."
"Good knight, God speed you safe and true."
"Lady, you are always in my thoughts."
"Good sir knight, I would wish - "
"Enough, enough," Arnaut said in a disgusted voice. He turned to Raimondo. "Go now, Raimondo, for this surfeit of sentiment makes my stomach heave."
"My Lord." The handsome knight bowed. He led Marek to the door and out into the sunlight.
"I'll tell you what the goddamn problem is," Robert Doniger said, glaring at the visitors. "The problem is to bring the past alive. To make it real."
There were two young men and a young woman, all slouching on the couch in his office. They were dressed entirely in black, wearing those pinch-shoulder jackets that looked like they'd shrunk in the wash. The men had long hair and the woman had a buzz cut. These were the media people that Kramer had hired. But Doniger noticed that today Kramer was sitting opposite them, subtly divorcing herself from them. He wondered if she had already seen their material.
It made Doniger irritable. He didn't like media people anyway. And this was his second meeting with the breed today. He'd had the PR dipshits in the morning, now these dipshits.
"The problem," he said, "is that I have thirty executives coming to hear my presentation tomorrow. The title of my presentation is 'The Promise of the Past,' and I have no compelling visuals to show them."
"Got it," one of the young men said crisply. "That was exactly our starting point here, Mr. Doniger. The client wants to bring the past alive. That's what we set out to do. With Ms. Kramer's help, we asked your own observers to generate sample videos for us. And we believe this material will have the compelling quality - "
"Let's see it," Doniger said.
"Yes, sir. Perhaps if we lowered the lights - "
"Leave the lights as they are."
"Yes, Mr. Doniger." The video screen on the wall came up blue as it glowed to life. While they were waiting for the image, the young man said, "The reason we like this first one is because it is a famous historical event that lasts only two minutes from start to finish. As you know, many historical events occurred very slowly, especially to modern sensibilities. This one was quick. Unfortunately, it occurred on a somewhat rainy day."
The screen showed a gray, gloomy image, overhanging clouds. The camera panned to show some sort of gathering, shot over the heads of a large crowd. A tall man was climbing up onto a plain, unpainted wood platform.
"What's this? A hanging?"
"No," the media kid said. "That's Abraham Lincoln, about to deliver the Gettysburg Address."
"It is? Jesus, he looks like hell. He looks like a corpse. His clothes are all wrinkled. His arms stick out of his sleeves."
"Yes, sir, but - "
"And is that his voice? It's squeaky."
"Yes, Mr. Doniger, no one's ever heard Lincoln's voice before, but that is his actual - "
"Are you out of your fucking minds?"
"No, Mr. Doniger - "
"Oh, for Christ's sake, I can't use this," Doniger said. "No one wants Abraham Lincoln to sound like Betty Boop. What else have you got?"
"It's right here, Mr. Doniger." Unruffled, the young man changed the tapes, saying, "For the second video, we adopted a different premise. We wanted a good action sequence, but again, a famous event that everybody would know. So this is Christmas Day, 1778, on the Delaware River, where - "
"I can't see shit," Doniger said.
"Yes, I'm afraid it is a bit dark. It's a night crossing. But we thought George Washington crossing the Delaware would be a good - "
"George Washington? Where is George Washington?"
"He's right there," the kid said, pointing to the screen.
"He's that guy huddled in the back of the boat?"
"That's correct, and - "
"No, no, no," Doniger said. "He has to be standing in the bow, like a general."
"I know that's the way the paintings portray him, but it's not what actually happened. Here you see the real George Washington as he actually crossed the - "
"He looks seasick," Doniger said. "You want me to show a video of George Washington looking seasick?"
"But this is reality."
"Fuck reality," Doniger said, throwing one of their videotapes across the room. "What's the matter with you people? I don't care about reality. I want something intriguing, something sexy. You're showing me a walking corpse and a drowned rat."
"Well, we can go back to the drawing board - "
"My talk is tomorrow," Doniger said. "I have three major executives coming here. And I have already told them they would see something very special." He threw up his hands. "Jesus Christ."
Kramer cleared her throat. "What about using stills?"
"Yes, Bob. You could take single frames from these videos, and that might be quite effective," Kramer said.
"Uh-huh, yes, that would work," the media woman said, head bobbing.
Doniger said, "Lincoln would still look wrinkled."
"We'll take the wrinkles out with Photoshop."
Doniger considered that. "Maybe," he said finally.
"Anyway," Kramer said, "you don't want to show them too much. Less is more."
"All right," Doniger said. "Make the stills up, and show them to me in an hour."
The media people filed out. Doniger was alone with Kramer. He went behind his desk, shuffled through his presentation. Then he said, "Do you think it should be 'The Promise of the Past,' or 'The Future of the Past'?"
"'The Promise of the Past,' " Kramer said. "Definitely 'The Promise.'"
Accompanied by two knights, Marek rode in the dust of the baggage carts, moving toward the head of the column. He could not see Chris or Kate yet, but his little group was moving swiftly. He would catch up to them soon.
He looked at the knights on either side of him. Raimondo on his left, erect, in full armor, with his thin smile. On his right, a grizzled warrior in armor, clearly tough and competent. Neither man paid him much attention, so secure were they in their control over him. Especially since his hands were bound together by ropes, with a six-inch gap between the wrists.
He rode along, coughing in the dust. Eventually he managed to slip his small dagger from beneath his coat, and palm it beneath his hand as he gripped the wooden pommel of the saddle in front of him. He tried to position the knife so the gentle movement of the horse up and down would slowly fray the rope at his wrists. But this was easier said than done; the knife seemed to be always in the wrong position, and his bonds were not cut. Marek glanced at his wristband counter; it read 07:21:02. There were still more than seven hours left before the batteries ran out.
Soon they had left the riverside trail behind and started to climb the twisting road up through the village of La Roque. The village was built into the cliffs above the river, the houses almost entirely of stone, giving the town a unified, somber appearance, especially now, when every door and window was boarded shut in anticipation of war.
Now they moved among the lead companies of Arnaut's soldiers, more knights in armor, each with their retinues following. Men and horses climbed the steep cobbled streets, horses snorting, baggage carts slipping as they went up. These knights in the lead had a sense of urgency; many of the carts carried pieces of disassembled siege engines. Evidently, they planned to begin the siege before nightfall.
They were still within the town when Marek caught sight of Chris and Kate, riding side by side on sagging mounts. They were perhaps a hundred yards ahead, alternately visible and hidden as the road twisted up. Raimondo put his hand on Marek's arm. "We approach no closer."
In the dust ahead, a banner flapped too near a horse's face. The horse reared, whinnying; a cart turned over, spilling cannonballs, which began to roll down the hill. This was the moment of confusion Marek had been waiting for, and he acted on it. He spurred his horse, which refused to go. Then he saw the grizzled knight had deftly grabbed the reins.
"My friend," Raimondo said calmly, riding beside him. "Do not make me kill you. At least, not yet." He nodded to Marek's hands. "And put that foolish little blade away, before you hurt yourself."
Marek felt his cheeks burn. But he did as he was told; he put the small dagger back beneath his robes. They rode on in silence.
From behind the stone houses, they heard the cry of a bird, repeated twice. Raimondo's head snapped around when he heard it; so did his companion on the other side. Evidently it was not a bird.
The men listened, and soon there was an answering cry from farther up the hill. Raimondo rested his hand on his sword, but did nothing else.
"What is it?" Marek said.
"No wise your affair."
And they said nothing else.
The soldiers were busy and no one paid them any attention, especially since their saddles had Arnaut's colors of green and black. Eventually, they arrived at the top of the cliff and came out into an open field with the castle on their right. The forest was close by on their left, and the broad, sloping, grassy plain was to the north.
With Arnaut's soldiers all around them, Marek did not particularly think about the fact that they were passing some fifty yards from the outer moat and the gatehouses of the castle entrance. Chris and Kate were still about a hundred yards ahead, up the column.
The attack came with stunning swiftness. Five mounted knights charged from the woods to their left, shouting battle cries and swinging their swords over their heads. They ran right for Marek and the others. It was an ambush.
With a howl, Raimondo and the grizzled knight drew their swords to fight. The horses wheeled; blades clanged. Arnaut himself galloped up and joined the fray, fighting furiously. Marek was momentarily ignored.
Looking up the column, he saw that another group had attacked Kate and Chris. Marek glimpsed the black plume of Sir Guy, and then the horsemen had surrounded the two. Marek spurred his mount and began galloping up the line.
Ahead, he saw one knight grab Chris by his coat and try to pull him from his horse; another grabbed the reins of Kate's horse, which whinnied and turned. Another knight had taken Chris's reins, but he kicked his horse so that it reared; the knight let go, but Chris was suddenly covered in blood, and he cried out in shock. Chris lost control of his horse, which whinnied and galloped away into the woods while he slid sideways in the saddle, hanging on weakly. In a moment, he had vanished among the trees.
Kate was still trying to pull her reins free from the knight who held them. All around them was pandemonium; Arnaut's men shouting and circling, running for their weapons, jabbing at the attacking knights with their pikes. One stabbed at the knight holding her horse, and the knight dropped the reins. Marek, though unarmed, charged into the middle of the fight, separating Kate from her attacker. She cried, "Andre!" but he said to her, "Go! Go!" and then Marek cried, "Malegant!" and Sir Guy turned to face him.
Marek immediately rode his own horse away from the fray, galloping directly toward La Roque. The other knights wheeled and broke free of the soldiers, thundering across the open field after Marek. Down the line, Marek saw Raimondo and Arnaut fighting in a great cloud of dust.
Kate kicked her horse, spurring him toward the woods to the north. Looking behind her as she rode, she saw Marek ride over the drawbridge of La Roque, into the castle, and out of sight. The pursuing riders followed him. Then the heavy grill of the portcullis gate came rumbling down. And the drawbridge raised up.
Marek was gone. Chris was gone. Either or both of them might be dead. But one thing was clear. She was the only one still free.
It was up to her now.
Surrounded on all sides by soldiers, she spent the next half hour threading her way through Arnaut's baggage train of horses and carts, trying to reach the northern woods. Arnaut's men were setting up a vast tented camp at the edge of the woods, facing the great grassy plain that sloped up to the castle.
Men shouted to her to come and help them, but she could only wave in what she hoped was a manly greeting, and keep moving. At length she reached the edge of the forest, and followed it until she saw the narrow trail leading into darkness and isolation. Here she paused a few moments to let the horse rest, and to let her own pounding heart slow down, before she went into the woods.
Back on the plain, the trebuchets were being swiftly assembled by groups of engineers. The trebuchets looked ungainly - oversized slingshots with heavy wooden beams bracing the armature for the firing paddle, which was winched back by stout hemp ropes, then released to snap upward, flinging its payload over the castle walls. The entire contraption appeared to weigh five hundred pounds, but the men constructed it swiftly, working in quick coordination, then going on to the next engine. But at least she understood now how, in some instances, a church or a castle could be built in a couple of years. The workers were so skilled, so self-effacing, they hardly needed direction.
She turned the horse away and entered the dense woods north of the castle.
The path was a narrow track through the forest, which rapidly grew dark as she went deeper. It felt spooky to be alone here; she heard the hooting of owls and the distant cries of strange birds. She passed one tree with a dozen ravens sitting on branches. She counted them, wondering if it was an omen, and what it might portend.
Riding slowly through the forest, she had the sense of slipping backward in time, of taking on more primitive ways of thought. The trees closed over her; the ground was as dark as evening. She had a sense of confinement, of oppression.
After twenty minutes, she was relieved to come into a clearing with tall grass in sunlight. She saw a break in the trees on the far side, where the path resumed. She was riding through the clearing when she saw a castle off to her left. She didn't remember any sort of structure from her charts, but it was here nevertheless. The castle was small - almost a manor house - and whitewashed, so that it shone brightly in the sun. It had four small turrets and a blue slate roof. At first glance, it looked cheerful, but then she noticed all the windows were barred; part of the slate roof had fallen in, leaving a ragged hole; the outbuildings were crumbling and in disrepair. This clearing had once been a mown field in front of the castle, now grown wild from neglect. She had a strong sense of stagnation and decay.
She shivered and spurred the horse on. She noticed that the grass ahead had recently been trampled down - by the footprints of another horse, moving in the same direction as she. As she looked, she saw the long blades of grass slowly rising upward, returning to their original position.
Someone had been here very recently. Perhaps only a few minutes before. Cautiously, she proceeded toward the far end of the clearing.
Darkness closed around her again as she slipped back into the forest. The trail ahead was becoming muddy, and she could see distinct hoofprints going forward.
From time to time, she paused and listened intently. But she heard nothing at all up ahead. Either the rider was far in front of her or he was very quiet. Once or twice, she thought she heard the sound of a horse, but she couldn't be sure.
It was probably her imagination.
She pushed on, toward the green chapel. To what had been called, on her maps, la chapelle verte morte. The chapel of green death.
In the darkness of the forest, she came upon a figure leaning wearily against a fallen tree. He was a wizened old man, wearing a hood and carrying a woodsman's ax. As she rode by, he said, "I beg you, good master, I beg you." His voice was thin, rasping. "Give me some small thing to eat, for I am poor, and have no food."
Kate did not think she had any food, but then she remembered the knight had given them a small bundle, tied behind her saddle. She reached back, found a crust of bread and a piece of dried beef. It didn't look appetizing, particularly since it now smelled strongly of horse sweat. She held the food out to him.
Eagerly, the man came forward, reached a bony hand for the food - but instead he grabbed her outstretched arm at the wrist with a surprisingly strong grip and, with a swift yank, tried to pull her from the horse. He cackled with delight, a nasty sound; as he struggled with her, his hood fell back, and she saw that he was younger than she had thought. Now, three other men ran forward from the shadows on both sides of the path, and she realized that they were godins, the peasant bandits. Kate was still in the saddle, but clearly not for long. She kicked the horse, but it was tired and unresponsive. The older man continued tugging at her arm, all the while muttering, "Foolish boy! You silly boy!"
Not knowing what else to do, she screamed for help, screaming at the top of her lungs, and this seemed to startle the men, so that they paused for a moment before resuming their attack. But then they heard the sound of a galloping horse coming toward them, and the roar of a warrior's battle cry, and the godins looked at one another and scattered. All except the wizened man, who refused to release Kate and now threatened her with his ax, which he raised in his other hand.
But in that moment an apparition, a bloodred knight on horseback, came crashing down the trail, his horse snorting, flinging clops of mud, the knight himself so fierce and bloody that the last man ran for his life, plunging into the darkness of the forest.
Chris reined up and circled around her. She felt a huge wave of relief flood through her; she had been badly frightened. Chris was smiling, clearly pleased with himself.
"Are you all right, ma'am?" he said.
"Are you?" Kate asked, amazed. Chris was literally drenched in blood; it had dried all over his face and body, and when he smiled, it cracked at the sides of his mouth, revealing the pink skin beneath. He looked as if he had fallen in a vat of red.
"I'm fine," Chris said. "Somebody hacked the horse next to me, cut an artery or something. I was soaked in a second. Blood is hot, did you know that?"
Kate was still staring at him, amazed to see anyone who looked like that making jokes, and then he took her horse's reins and led her quickly away. "I think," Chris said, "we won't wait for them to regroup. Didn't your mother tell you not to talk to strangers, Kate? Especially when you meet them in the woods?"
"Actually, I thought you were supposed to give them food and they helped you."
"Only in fairy tales," he said. "In the real world, if you stop to help the poor man in the woods, he and his friends steal your horse and kill you. That's why nobody does it."
Chris was still grinning, and he seemed so confident and amused, and she had the feeling that she had never noticed, never been aware, that he was quite an attractive man, that he had a certain genuine appeal. But of course, she thought, he had saved her life. She was just grateful.
"What were you doing, anyway?" she said.
He laughed. "Trying to catch up to you. I thought you were way ahead of me."
The path divided. The main path appeared to go off to the right, beginning a slow descent. A much narrower track went to the left, on flat ground. But it seemed much less used.
"What do you think?" Kate said.
"Take the main road," Chris said. He led the way forward, and Kate was quite happy to follow him. The forest around them grew more lush, the ground ferns six feet high, like huge elephant ears, obscuring her view ahead. She heard a distant roar of water. The land began to slope downward more sharply, and she couldn't see her footing because of the ferns. They both dismounted and tied their horses loosely to a tree. They proceeded on foot.
The land sloped steeply downward now, and the path turned into a muddy track. Chris slipped, grasping at branches and shrubs to break his slide. She watched as he slipped and slid, and then with a yell, he was gone.
She waited. "Chris?"
She tapped her earpiece. "Chris?"
She was not sure what to do, whether to go forward or retrace her steps backward. She decided to follow him, but cautiously, now that she knew how slippery the path was, and what had happened to him. Yet after only a few careful steps, her feet shot out from beneath her, and she was sliding helplessly in the mud, banging against tree trunks, getting the wind knocked out of her.
The terrain grew steeper. Kate fell backward in the mud and slid down on her backside, trying to use her feet to push off tree trunks as they rushed up. Branches scratched her face, tore at her hands as she reached for them. She didn't seem able to stop her headlong rush down.
And all the time, the terrain grew steeper. Now the trees ahead were thinning, she could see light between the trunks, and she heard the rush of water. She was sliding down a path that ran parallel to a small stream. The trees thinned more, and she saw that the forest ended abruptly about twenty yards ahead. The rushing sound of water grew louder.
And then she realized why the forest ended.
It was the edge of a cliff.
And beyond was a waterfall. Directly ahead.
Terrified, Kate rolled over on her stomach, dug her fingers like claws into the mud, but to no avail. She still continued to slide. She couldn't stop. She rolled onto her back, still sliding down a chute of mud, helpless to do anything but watch the end coming, and then she shot out of the forest and was flying in the air, hardly daring to look down.
Almost immediately, she smashed down into foliage, clutched at it, and held. She swung up and down. She was in the branches of a large tree, hanging out over the cliff. The waterfall was directly below her. It wasn't as large as she had thought. Maybe ten, fifteen feet high. There was a pool at the base. She couldn't tell how deep it was.
She tried to climb back along the branches of the tree, but her hands were slippery from the mud. She kept slipping, twisting on the branch. Eventually, she was hanging beneath, clutching it with hands and legs like a sloth as she tried to work her way backward. She went another five feet, then realized she would never make it.
She struck another branch, four feet lower. She hung there a moment, gripping the branch with slippery, muddy hands. Then she fell again, struck a lower branch.
Now she was just a few feet above the waterfall as it curved, roaring, over the lip of the cliff. The branches of the tree were wet from mist. She looked at the churning pool of water at the base. She couldn't see the bottom; she couldn't be sure how deep it was.
Hanging precariously from the branch, she thought: Where the hell is Chris? But in the next moment, she lost her grip and fell the rest of the way.
The water was an icy shock, bubbling, opaque, roiling furiously around her. She tumbled, disoriented, kicked to the surface, banged against rocks on the bottom. Finally, she came up beneath the waterfall, which pounded on her head with incredible force. She couldn't breathe. She ducked down again, swam ahead, and came out a few yards downstream. The water in the pool was calmer, though still chillingly cold.
She climbed out and sat on a rock. She saw that the churning water had washed all the mud from her clothes, from her body. She felt somehow new - and very glad to be alive.
Catching her breath, she looked around.
She was in a narrow little vale, the afternoon light misty from the waterfall. The valley was lush and wet, the grass was wet, the trees and rocks covered in moss. Directly ahead, a stone path led to a small chapel.
The chapel was wet, too, its surfaces covered with a kind of slimy mold, which streaked the walls and dripped from the edge of the roof. The mold was bright green.
The green chapel.
She also saw broken suits of armor heaped untidily beside the chapel door, old breastplates rusting in the pale sun and dented helmets lying on their sides; also swords and axes casually thrown all around.
Kate looked for Chris but didn't see him. Evidently, he hadn't fallen all the way, as she had. Probably he was now making his way down by another path. She thought she would wait for him; she had been happy to see him earlier, and missed him now. But she didn't see Chris anywhere. And aside from the waterfall, she heard no sound at all in the little valley, not even birds. It was ominously silent.
And yet she did not feel alone. She had the strong sense of something else here - a presence in the valley.
And then she heard a growling sound from inside the chapel: a guttural, animal sound.
She stood, and moved cautiously along the stone path toward the weapons. She picked up a sword and gripped the handle in both hands, even though she felt foolish; the sword was heavy, and she knew she had neither the strength nor the skill to use it. She was now close to the chapel door, and she smelled a strong odor of decay from inside. The growling came again.
And suddenly, an armored knight stepped forward, blocking the doorway. He was a huge man, nearly seven feet tall, and his armor was smeared with green mold. He wore a heavy helmet, so she could not see his face. He carried a heavy double-bladed ax, like an executioner's.
The ax swung back and forth as the knight advanced toward her.
Instinctively, she backed away, her eyes on the ax. Her first thought was to run, but the knight had jumped out at her quickly; she suspected he might be able to catch her. Anyway, she didn't want to turn her back on him. But she couldn't attack; he seemed to be twice her size. He never spoke; she heard only grunting and snarling from inside the helmet - animal sounds, demented sounds. He must be insane, she thought.
The knight came quickly closer, forcing her to act. She swung her sword with all her strength; he raised his ax to block and metal clanged against metal; her sword vibrated so strongly, she nearly lost her grip. She swung again, low, trying to cut his legs, but he easily blocked again, and with a quick twist of his ax, the blade flew out of her hands, landing on the grass beyond.
She turned and ran. Snarling, the knight raced forward and grabbed a fistful of her short hair. He dragged her, screaming, around to the side of the chapel. Her scalp burned; ahead, she saw a curved block of wood on the ground, showing the marks of many deep cuts. She knew what it was: a beheading block.
She was powerless to oppose him. The knight pushed her down roughly, forcing her neck onto the block. He stood with his foot in the middle of her back, to hold her in position. She flailed her arms helplessly.
She saw a shadow move across the grass as he raised his ax into the air.
The telephone rang insistently, loudly. David Stern yawned, flicked on the bedside lamp, picked up the receiver. "Hello," he said, his voice groggy.
"David, it's John Gordon. You'd better come down to the transit room."
Stern fumbled for his glasses, looked at his watch. It was 6:20 a.m. He had slept for three hours.
"There's a decision to make," Gordon said. "I'll be up to get you in five minutes."
"Okay," Stern said, and hung up. He got out of bed and opened the blinds at the window; bright sunlight shone in, so bright that it made him squint. He headed for the bathroom to take a shower.
He was in one of three rooms that ITC maintained in their laboratory building for researchers who had to work through the night. It was equipped like a hotel room, even down to the little bottles of shampoo and moisturizing cream by the sink. Stern shaved and dressed, then stepped out into the hallway. He didn't see Gordon anywhere, but he heard voices from the far end of the corridor. He walked down the hall, looking through the glass doors into the various labs. They were all deserted at this hour.
But at the end of the corridor, he found a lab with its door open. A workman with a yellow tape was measuring the height and width of the doorway. Inside, four technicians were all standing around a large table, looking down at it. On the table was a large scale model built of pale wood, showing the fortress of La Roque and the surrounding area. The men were murmuring to one another, and one was tentatively lifting the edge of the table. It seemed they were trying to figure out how to move it.
"Doniger says he has to have it," the technician said, "as an exhibit after the presentation."
"I don't see how we get it out of the room," another said. "How'd they get it in?"
"They built it in place."
"It'll just make it," said the man at the door, snapping his tape measure shut.
Curious, Stern walked into the room, looked more closely at the model. It showed the castle, recognizable and accurate, in the center of a much larger complex. Beyond the castle was a ring of foliage, and outside that a complex of blocky buildings and a network of roads. Yet none of that existed. In medieval times, the castle had stood alone on a plain.
Stern said, "What model is this?"
"La Roque," a technician said.
"But this model isn't accurate."
"Oh yes," the technician said, "it's entirely accurate. At least according to the latest architectural drawings they've given us."
"What architectural drawings?" Stern said.
At that, the technicians fell silent, worried looks on their faces. Now Stern saw there were other scale models: of Castelgard, and of the Monastery of Sainte-Mre. He saw large drawings on the walls. It was like an architect's office, he thought.
At that moment, Gordon stuck his head in the door. "David? Let's go."
He walked down the corridor with Gordon. Looking over his shoulder, he saw the technicians had turned the model on end and were carrying it through the door.
"What's that all about?" Stern said.
"Site-development study," Gordon said. "We do them for every project site. The idea is to define the immediate environment around the historical monument, so that the site itself is preserved for tourists and scholars. They study view lines, things like that."
"But why is that any of your business?" Stern said.
"It's absolutely our business," Gordon said. "We're going to spend millions before a site is fully restored. And we don't want it junked up with a shopping mall and a bunch of high-rise hotels. So we try to do larger site planning, see if we can get the local government to set guidelines." He looked at Stern. "Frankly, I never thought it was particularly interesting."