Chapter 7

 Michael Crichton

  • Background:
  • Text Font:
  • Text Size:
  • Line Height:
  • Line Break Height:
  • Frame:
Not ever.
"Stand by," a technician said. "Coming in now."
In the rubber floor, in the center of the curved water shields, small flashes of light appeared.
Gordon glanced at Stern. "We'll know what happened in just a minute."
The flashes grew brighter, and a machine began to emerge above the rubber. It was about two feet high when Gordon said, "Goddamn it! That guy is nothing but trouble."
Stern said something, but Gordon paid no attention. He saw Baretto sitting there, propped up against a bar, clearly dead. The machine reached full size. He saw the pistol in his hand. He knew of course what had happened. Even though Kramer had specifically warned Baretto, the son of a bitch had taken modern weapons back with him. So of course Gomez sent him back, and -
A small dark object rolled out onto the floor.
"What's that?" Stern said.
"I don't know," Gordon said, staring at the screens. "It almost looks like a gre - "
The explosion flashed in the transit room, blooming white on the video screens, washing everything out. Inside the control room, the sound was oddly distorted, more like a burst of static. The transit room was immediately filled with pale smoke.
"Shit," Gordon said. He banged his fist down on the console.
The technicians in the transit room were screaming. One man's face was covered with blood. In the next moment, the man was swept off his feet in the rush of water as the shields collapsed, shattered by grenade fragments. Water three feet deep sloshed back and forth like surf. But almost immediately, it began to drain out, leaving the newly bare floor hissing and steaming.
"It's the cells," Gordon said. "They've leaked hydrofluoric acid."
Obscured by smoke, figures in gas masks were running into the room, helping the injured technicians. Overhead beams began to crash down, shattering the remaining water shields. Other beams smashed down into the center of the floor.
In the control room, someone gave a gas mask to Gordon, and another to Stern. Gordon pulled his on.
"We have to go now," he said. "The air is contaminated."
Stern was staring at the screens. Through the smoke, he could see the other machines shattered, toppled over, leaking steam and pale green gas. There was only one still standing, off to one side, and as he watched, a connecting beam crashed down on it, crumpling it.
"There are no more machines," Stern said. "Does this mean - "
"Yes," Gordon said. "For now, I'm afraid your friends are on their own."
"Just take it easy, Chris," Marek said.
"Take it easy? Take it easy?" Chris was almost shouting. "Look at it, for Christ's sake, Andre  -  her marker's trashed. We have no marker. Which means we have no way to get home. Which means we are totally screwed, Andre. And you want me to take it easy?"
"That's right, Chris," Marek said, his voice very quiet, very steady. "That's what I want. I want you to take it easy, please. I want you to pull yourself together."
"Why the hell should I?" Chris said. "For what? Face the facts, Andre: we're all going to get killed here. You know that, don't you? We're going to get goddamn killed. And there is no way out of here."
"Yes, there is."
"I mean, we don't even have any food, we don't have goddamn anything, we're stuck in this  -  this shithole, without a goddamn paddle, and - " He stopped and turned toward Marek. "What did you say?"
"I said, there's a way out."
"You're not thinking. The other machine has gone back. To New Mexico."
"They'll see his condition - "
"Dead, Andre. They'll see he's dead."
"The point is, they'll know something is wrong. And they will come for us. They'll send another machine to get us," Marek said.
"How do you know?"
"Because they will." Marek turned and started down the hill.
"Where are you going?"
"To find Kate. We have to keep together."
"I'm going to stay right here."
"As you like. Just as long as you don't leave."
"Don't worry, I'll be right here."
Chris pointed to the ground in front of him. "This is exactly where the machine arrived before. And that's where I'm staying."
Marek trotted off, disappearing around the curve in the path. Chris was alone. Almost immediately, he wondered if he ought to run and catch up with Marek. Maybe it was better not to be alone. Stay together, as Marek had said.
He took a couple of steps down the path after Marek, then stopped. No, he thought. He'd said he would stay where he was. He stood in the path, trying to slow his breathing.
Looking down, he saw he was standing on Gomez's hand. He stepped quickly away. He walked a few yards back up the path, trying to find a spot where he could no longer see the body. His breathing slowed still more. He was able to think things over. Marek was right, he decided. They would send another machine, and probably very soon. Would it land right here? Was this a known spot for landings? Or would it be somewhere in the general area?
In either case, Chris felt certain he should stay exactly where he was.
He looked down the path, toward where Marek had gone. Where was Kate now? Probably some distance down the path. Couple of hundred yards, maybe more.
Jesus, he wanted to go home.
Then, in the woods to his right, he heard a crashing sound.
Someone was approaching.
He tensed, aware that he had no weapon. Then he remembered his pack, which was tied to his belt, beneath his clothes. He had that gas canister. It was better than nothing. He fumbled, lifting his overshirt, searching for the -
He turned.
It was the teenage boy, coming out of the woods. His face was smooth and beardless; he couldn't be more than twelve, Chris realized. The boy whispered, "Arkith. Thou. Earwashmann."
Chris frowned, not understanding, but an instant later he heard a tinny voice inside his ear: "Hey. You. Irishman." The earpiece was translating, he realized.
"What?" he said.
"Coumen hastealey." In his ear he heard, "Come quickly."
The boy was beckoning to him, tense, urgently.
"But . . ."
"Come. Sir Guy will soon realize he has lost the trail. Then he will return to find it again."
"But . . ."
"You cannot stay here. He will kill you. Come!"
"But . . ." Chris gestured helplessly toward the path where Marek had gone.
"Your manservant will find you. Come!"
Now he heard the distant rumble of horses' hooves, rapidly growing louder.
"Are you dumb?" the boy asked, staring at him. "Come!"
The rumble was closer.
Chris stood frozen in place, not certain what to do.
The boy lost patience. With a disgusted shake of his head, he turned and ran off through the forest. He immediately vanished in dense undergrowth.
Chris stood alone on the trail. He looked down the path. He didn't see Marek. He looked up the path, toward the sound of the approaching horses. His heart was pounding again.
He had to decide. Now.
"I'm coming!" he shouted to the boy.
Then he turned and ran into the woods.
Kate sat on a fallen tree, touching her head gingerly, her wig askew. There was blood on her fingertips.
"Are you hurt?" Marek said as he came up to her.
"I don't think so."
"Let me see."
Lifting the wig away, Marek saw matted blood and a three-inch gash across the scalp. The wound was no longer bleeding freely; the blood had begun to coagulate against the mesh of the wig. The injury deserved sutures, but she would be all right without them.
"You'll survive." He pushed the wig back down on her head.
She said, "What happened?"
"Those other two are dead. It's just us now. Chris is a little panicked."
"Chris is a little panicked." She nodded, as if she had expected it. "Then we better go get him."
They started up the path. As they walked, Kate said, "What about the markers?"
"The guy went back, and he took his. Gomez's body was trampled, her marker was destroyed."
"What about the other one?" Kate said.
"What other one?"
"She had a spare."
"How do you know?"
"She said so. Don't you remember? When she came back from that reconnaissance trip, or whatever it was, she said that everything was fine and that we should hurry up and get ready. And she said, 'I'm going to go burn the spare.' Or something like that."
Marek frowned.
"It makes sense there would be a spare," Kate said.
"Well, Chris will be glad to hear it," Marek said. They walked around the final curve. Then they stopped and stared.
Chris was gone.
Plunging through the undergrowth, ignoring the brambles that scratched his legs and plucked at his hose, Chris Hughes at last glimpsed the boy running, fifty yards ahead. But the boy did not heed him, did not stop, but continued to run forward. He was heading toward the village. Chris struggled to keep up. He kept running.
Behind on the trail, he heard the horses stamping and snorting, and the shouts of the men. He heard one cry, "In the wood!" and another answered with a curse. But off the trail, the ground was densely covered. Chris had to scramble over fallen trees, rotting trunks, snapped branches as thick as his thigh, dense patches of bramble. Was this ground too difficult for horses? Would they dismount? Would they give up? Or would they chase?
Hell, they would chase.
He kept running. He was in a boggy area now. He pushed through the waist-high plants with their skunklike smell, slipped in mud that grew deeper with each step. He heard the sound of his panting breath, and the suck and slap of his feet in the mud.
But he didn't hear anyone behind him.
Soon the footing was dry again, and he was able to run faster. Now the boy was only ten paces ahead of him, still going fast. Chris was panting, struggling to keep up, but he held his own.
He ran on. There was a crackling in his left ear. "Chris."
It was Marek.
"Chris, where are you?"
How did he answer? Was there a microphone? Then he remembered they'd said something about bone conduction. He said aloud, "I'm . . . I'm running. . . ."
"I hear that. Where are you running?"
"The boy . . . the village . . ."
"You're going to the village?"
"I don't know. I think so."
"You think so? Chris, where are you?"
And then, behind him, Chris heard a crashing, the shouts of men, and the whinny of horses.
The riders were coming after him. And he had left a trail of snapped branches and muddy footprints. It would be easy to follow.
Chris ran harder, pushing himself to the limit. And suddenly he realized the young boy was no longer visible ahead.
He stopped, gasping for breath, and spun around in a circle. Looking -
The boy had vanished.
Chris was alone in the forest.
And the riders were coming.
On the muddy path overlooking the monastery, Marek and Kate stood listening to their earpieces. There was silence now; Kate clapped her hand over her ear to hear better. "I don't get anything."
"He may be out of range," Marek said.
"Why is he going to the village? It sounds like he's following that boy," she said. "Why would he do that?"
Marek looked toward the monastery. It was no more than a ten-minute walk from where they were standing. "The Professor is probably down there right now. We could just go get him, and go home." He kicked a tree stump irritably. "It would have been so easy."
"Not anymore," Kate said.
The sharp crack of static in their earpieces made them wince. They heard Chris panting again.
Marek said, "Chris. Are you there?"
"I can't . . . can't talk now."
He was whispering. And he sounded scared.
"No, no, no!" the boy whispered, reaching down from the branches of a very large tree. He had whistled, finally taking pity on Chris as he spun in panicky circles on the ground below. And he had waved him to the tree.
Chris was now struggling to climb the tree, trying to pull himself up on the lowest branches, getting extra leverage by bracing his legs against the trunk. But the way he did it upset the boy.
"No, no! Hands! Use only the hands!" the boy whispered, exasperated. "You are dumb  -  look now the marks on the trunk, by your feet."
Hanging from a branch, Chris looked down. The boy was right. There were muddy streaks, very clear on the bark of the trunk.
"By the rood, we are lost," the boy cried, swinging over Chris's head and dropping lightly to the ground.
"What are you doing?" Chris said.
But the boy was already running off, through the brambles, moving from tree to tree. Chris dropped back to the ground and followed.
The boy muttered irritably to himself as he inspected the branches of each tree. Apparently he wanted a very large tree with relatively low branches; none suited him. The sound of the riders was growing louder.
Soon they had traveled a hundred yards or more, into an area carpeted with gnarled, scrubby ground pines. It was more exposed and sunnier here because there were fewer trees to his right, and then Chris saw they were running near the edge of a cliff that overlooked the town and the river. The boy darted away from the sunlight, back into the darker forest. Almost at once, he found a tree he liked, and signaled Chris to come forward. "You go first. And no feet!"
The boy bent his knees, laced the fingers of his hands, and tensed his body, bracing himself. Chris felt the youth was too slender to take his weight, but the boy jerked his head impatiently. Chris put his foot in the boy's hands, and reaching upward, grasped the lowest branch. With the help of the boy, he pulled himself up, until with a final grunt he swung himself over so he lay on his stomach, bent double over the branch. He looked down at the boy, who hissed, "Move!" Chris struggled to his knees, then got to his feet on the branch. The next branch above was within easy reach, and he continued to climb.
Below, the boy leapt into the air, gripped the branch, and pulled quickly up. Although slim, he was surprisingly strong, and he moved from branch to branch surely. Chris was now about twenty feet above the ground. His arms burned, he was gasping as he went up, but he kept on going, branch to branch.
The boy gripped his calf, and he froze. Slowly, cautiously, he looked back over his shoulder, and saw the boy rigid on the branch beneath him. Then Chris heard the soft snort of a horse and realized the sound was close.
Very close.
On the ground below, six riders moved slowly and silently forward. They were still some distance away, intermittently visible through gaps in the foliage. When a horse snorted, its rider leaned forward to pat its neck to quiet it.
The riders knew they were close to their prey. They leaned over in their saddles, scanning the ground, looking to one side and the other. Fortunately they were now among the scrubby low pines; no trail was visible.
Communicating by hand gestures, they moved apart, separating themselves as they came forward. Now they formed a rough line, passing beneath the tree on both sides. Chris held his breath. If they looked up . . .
But they didn't.
They moved onward, deeper into the forest, and finally one of them spoke aloud. It was the rider with the black plume on his helmet, the one who had cut off Gomez's head. His visor was up.
"Here is enough. They have slipped us."
"How? Over the cliff?"
The black knight shook his head. "The child is not so foolish." Chris saw his face was dark: dark complexion and dark eyes.
"Nor quite a child, my Lord."
"If he fell, it was by error. It could not be otherwise. But I think we have gone awry. Let us return as we came."
"My Lord."
The riders turned their mounts and started back. They passed beneath the tree again, and then rode off, still widely spaced, heading into sunlight.
"Perhaps in better light, we shall find their track."
Chris gave a long sigh of relief.
The boy below tapped him on the leg and nodded to him, as if to say, Good work. They waited until the riders were at least a hundred yards away, nearly out of sight. Then the boy slipped quietly down the tree, and Chris followed as best he could.
Once on the ground, Chris saw the riders moving off. They were coming to the tree with the muddy footprints. The black knight passed it, not noticing. Then the next -
The boy grabbed his arm, pulled him away, slipping off in the underbrush.
Then: "Sir Guy! Look you here! The tree! They are in the tree!"
One of the knights had noticed.
The riders spun on their mounts, looking up at the tree. The black knight came back, skeptical. "Eh? Show me."
"I do not see them up there, my Lord."
The knights turned, looked back, looked in all directions, looked behind them. . . .
And they saw them.
The riders charged.
The boy ran hard. "God's truth, we are lost now," he said, glancing over his shoulder as he raced forward. "Can you swim?"
"Swim?" Chris said.
Of course he could swim. But that was not what he was thinking about. Because right now they were running hard, flat out  -  toward the clearing, toward the break in the trees.
Toward the cliff.
The land sloped downward, gently at first, then more steeply. The ground cover became thinner, with exposed patches of yellow-white limestone. The sunlight was glaring.
The black knight bellowed something. Chris didn't understand it.
They came at last to the edge of the clearing. Without hesitation, the boy leapt into space.
Chris hesitated, not wanting to follow. Glancing back, he saw the knights charging him, their broadswords raised.
No choice.
Chris turned and ran forward toward the cliff edge.
Marek winced as he heard Chris's scream in his earpiece. The scream was loud at first, then abruptly ended with a grunt and a crashing sound.
An impact.
He stood with Kate by the trail, listening. Waiting.
They heard nothing more. Not even the crackle of static.
Nothing at all.
"Is he dead?" Kate said.
Marek didn't answer her. He walked quickly to Gomez's body, crouched down, and started searching in the mud. "Come on," he said. "Help me find that spare marker."
They searched for the next few minutes, and then Marek grabbed Gomez's hand, already turning pale gray, the muscles stiffening. He lifted her arm, feeling the coldness of her skin, and turned her torso over. The body splashed back in the mud.
That was when he noticed that Gomez had a bracelet of braided twine on her wrist. Marek hadn't noticed it before; it seemed to be part of her period costume. Of course, it was completely wrong for the period. Even a modest peasant woman would wear a bracelet of metal, or carved stone or wood, if she wore anything at all. This was a hippie-dippy modern thing.
Marek touched it curiously, and he was surprised to find it was stiff, almost like cardboard. He turned it on her wrist, looking for the latch, and a sort of lid flicked open in the braided twine, and he realized that the bracelet covered a small electronic timer, like a wristwatch.
The timer read: 36:10:37.
And it was counting backward.
He knew at once what it was. It was an elapsed counter for the machine, showing how much time they had left. They had thirty-seven hours initially, and now they had lost about fifty minutes.
We should hold on to this, he thought. He untied the bracelet from her arm, then wrapped it around his own wrist. He flipped the little lid shut.
"We've got a timer," Kate said. "But no marker."
They searched for the next five minutes. And finally, reluctantly, Marek had to admit the hard truth.
There was no marker. And without a marker, the machines would not come back.
Chris was right: they were trapped there.
In the control room, an alarm rang insistently. The technicians both got up from their consoles and started out of the room. Stern felt Gordon grab him firmly by the arm.
"We have to go," Gordon said. "The air's contaminated from the hydrofluoric acid. The transit pad is toxic. And the fumes will be up here, too, soon enough." He began to lead Stern out of the control room.
Stern glanced back at the screen, at the jumble of girders in smoke in the transit site. "But what if they try to come back when everybody is gone?"
"Don't worry," Gordon said. "That can't happen. The wreckage will trigger the infrared. The sensors need six feet on all sides, remember? Two meters. They don't have it. So the sensors won't let the machines come back. Not until we get all that cleared away."
"How long will it take to clear it away?"
"First, we have to exchange the air in the cave."
Gordon took Stern back to the long corridor leading to the main elevator. There were a lot of people in the corridor, all leaving. Their voices echoed in the tunnel.
"Exchange the air in the cave?" Stern said. "That's a huge volume. How long will that take?"
Gordon said, "In theory, it takes nine hours."
"In theory?"
"We've never had to do it before," Gordon said. "But we have the capacity, of course. The big fans should cut in any minute."
A few seconds later, a roaring sound filled the tunnel. Stern felt a blast of wind press his body, tug at his clothes.
"And after they exchange all the air? What then?"
"We rebuild the transit pad and wait for them to come back," Gordon said. "Just the way we were planning to do."
"And if they try to come back before you're ready for them?"
"It's not a problem, David. The machine will just refuse. It'll pop them right back to where they were. For the time being."
"So they're stranded," Stern said.
"For the moment," Gordon said. "Yes. They're stranded. And there's nothing we can do about it."
Chris Hughes ran to the edge of the cliff and threw himself into space, screaming, arms and legs flailing in the sunlight. He saw the Dordogne, two hundred feet below, snaking through the green countryside. It was too far to fall. He knew the river was too shallow. There was no question he would die.
But then he saw the cliff face beneath him was not sheer  -  there was a protruding shelf of land, twenty feet below, jutting out from the upper rim of the cliff. It was steeply angled bare rock, with a sparse cover of scrubby trees and brush.
He slammed down on the shelf, landing on his side, the impact blasting the air from his lungs. Immediately, he began rolling helplessly toward the edge. He tried to stop the roll, clutching desperately at underbrush, but it was all too weak, and it tore away in his hands. As he tumbled toward the edge, he was aware of the boy reaching for him, but Chris missed his outstretched arms. He continued to roll, his world spinning out of control. Now the boy was behind him, with a horrified look on his face. Chris knew he was going to go over the edge; he was going to fall -
With a grunt, he slammed into a tree. He felt a sharp pain in his stomach, then it streaked through his whole body. For a moment, he did not know where he was; he felt only pain. The world was greenish white. He came back to it slowly.
The tree had broken his descent, but for a moment he still could not breathe at all. The pain was intense. Stars swam before his eyes, then slowly faded, and finally he saw his legs were dangling over the edge of the cliff.
And moving.
Moving downward.
The tree was a spindly pine, and his weight was slowly, slowly bending it over. He felt himself begin to slide along the trunk. He was helpless to stop it. He grabbed at the trunk and held tightly. And it worked: he wasn't sliding anymore. He pulled himself along the trunk, working his way back to the rock.
Then, to his horror, he saw the roots of the tree begin to break free of the rocky crevices, one by one snapping loose, pale in the sunlight. It was only a matter of time before the entire trunk broke free.
Then he felt a tug at his collar and saw the boy standing above him, hauling him back to his feet. The boy looked exasperated. "Come, now!"
"Jesus," Chris said. He flopped onto a flat rock, gasping for breath. "Just give me a minute - "
An arrow whined past his ear like a bullet. He felt the wind of its passage. He was stunned by the power of it. Energized by fear, he scrambled along the shelf, bent over, pulling himself from tree to tree. Another arrow snapped down through the trees.
On the cliff above, the horsemen were looking down on them. The black knight shouted, "Fool! Idiot!" and cuffed the archer angrily, knocking the bow from his hands. There were no more arrows.
The boy pulled Chris forward by the arm. Chris didn't know where the path along the cliff went, but the boy seemed to have a plan. Above him, the horsemen wheeled, turned away, heading back into the woods.
Now the shelf ended in a narrow ledge, no more than a foot wide, which curved around an angle in the cliff. Below the ledge was a sheer drop to the river. Chris stared at the river, but the boy grabbed his chin, jerked his head up. "Do not look down. Come." The boy pressed himself flat against the cliff face, hugging the rock, and moved gingerly along on the ledge. Chris followed his example, still gasping for breath. He knew if he hesitated at all, panic would overcome him. The wind tugged at his clothes, pulling him away from the cliff. He pressed his cheek to the warm rock, clutching at fingerholds, fighting panic.
He saw the boy disappear around the corner. Chris kept going. The corner was sharp, and the path beneath had fallen away, leaving a gap. He had to step across it carefully, but then he rounded the corner, and sighed in relief.
He saw the cliff now ended in a long green slope of forested land, which continued all the way down to the river. The boy was waving to him. Chris moved ahead, rejoining the boy.
"From here it is easier." The boy started down, Chris behind him. Almost at once, he realized the slope was not as gentle as it had appeared. It was dark beneath the trees, steep and muddy. The boy slipped, slid along the muddy track, and vanished into the forest below. Chris continued to pick his way downward, grabbing branches for support. Then he, too, lost his footing, slapped down in the mud on his backside, and slid. For some reason he thought, I am a graduate student at Yale. I am an historian specializing in the history of technology. It was as if he was trying to hold on to an identity that was rapidly fading from his awareness, like a dream from which he had awakened, and was now forgetting.
Sliding headlong in the mud, Chris banged into trees, felt branches scratch at his face, but could do nothing to slow his descent. He went down the hill, and down.
With a sigh, Marek got to his feet. There was no marker on Gomez's body. He was sure of it. Kate stood beside him, biting her lip. "I know she said there was a spare. I know it."
"I don't know where it is," Marek said.
Unconsciously, Kate started to scratch her head, then felt the wig, and the pain from the bump on her head. "This damn wig . . ."
She stopped. She stared at Marek.
And then she walked away into the woods along the edge of the path. "Where did it go?" she said.
"Her head."
She found it a moment later, surprised at how small it seemed. A head without a body wasn't very big. She tried not to look at the stump of the neck.
Fighting revulsion, she crouched down and turned the head over, so that she was looking at the gray face, the sightless eyes. The tongue half-protruded from the slack jaw. Flies buzzed inside the mouth.
She lifted the wig away and immediately saw the ceramic marker. It was taped to the mesh inside the wig. She pulled it free.
"Got it," she said.
Kate turned it over in her hand. She saw the button in the side of the marker, where there was a small light. The button was so small and narrow, it could only be pushed with a thumbnail.
This was it. They had definitely found it.
Marek came over and stared at the ceramic.
"Looks like it to me," he said.
"So we can go back," Kate said. "Anytime we want."
"Do you want to go back?" Marek asked her.
She thought it over. "We came here to get the Professor," she said. "And I think that's what we ought to do."
Marek grinned.
And then they heard thundering hooves, and they dived into the bushes just moments before six dark horsemen galloped down the muddy path, heading toward the river below.
Chris staggered forward, knee-deep in boggy marsh at the edge of the river. Mud clung to his face, his hair, his clothes. He was covered in so much mud that he felt its weight. He saw the boy ahead of him, already splashing in the water, washing.
Pushing past the last of the tangles along the water's edge, Chris slid into the river. The water was icy cold, but he didn't care. He ducked his head under, ran his hand through his hair, rubbed his face, trying to get the mud off him.
By now the boy had climbed out on the opposite bank and was sitting in the sun on a rocky outcrop. The boy said something that Chris could not hear, but his earpiece translated, "You do not remove your clothes to bathe?"
"Why? You did not."
At this, the boy shrugged. "But you may, if you wish it."
Chris swam to the far side, and climbed out. His clothes were still very muddy, and he felt chilled now that he was out in the open air. He stripped off his clothes down to his belt and linen shorts, rinsed the outergarments in the river, then set them on the rocks to dry. His body was covered with scratches, welts and bruises. But already his skin was drying, and the sun felt warm. He turned his face upward, closed his eyes. He heard the soft song of women in the fields. He heard birds. The gentle lap of the river at the banks. And for a moment, he felt a peace descend on him that was deeper, and more complete, than anything he had ever felt in his life.
He lay down on the rocks, and he must have fallen asleep for a few minutes, because when he awoke he heard:
"Howbite thou speakst foolsimple ohcopan, eek invich array thouart. Essay thousooth Earisher?"
The boy was speaking. An instant later, he heard the tinny voice in his ear, translating: "The way you speak plainly to your friend, and the way you dress. Tell the truth. You are Irish, is it so?"
Chris nodded slowly, thinking that over. Apparently, the boy had overheard him speaking to Marek on the path and had concluded they were Irish. There didn't seem to be any harm in letting him think that.
"Aye," he said.
"Aie?" the boy repeated. He formed the syllable slowly, pulling his lips back, showing his teeth. "Aie?" The word seemed strange to him.
Chris thought, He doesn't understand "aye"? He would try something else. He said, "Oui?"
"Oui . . . oui. . . ." The boy seemed confused by this word, as well. Then he brightened. "Ourie? Seyngthou ourie?" and the translation came, "Shabby? Are you saying shabby?"
Chris shook his head no. "I am saying 'yes.' " This was getting very confusing.
"Yezz?" the boy said, speaking it like a hiss.
"Yes," Chris said, nodding.
"Ah. Earisher." The translation came: "Ah. Irish."
"Wee sayen yeaso. Oriwis, thousay trew."
Chris said, "Thousay trew." His earpiece translated his own words: "You speak the truth."
The boy nodded, satisfied with the answer. They sat in silence a moment. He looked Chris up and down. "So you are gentle."
Gentle? Chris shrugged. Of course he was gentle. He certainly wasn't a fighter. "Thousay trew."
The boy nodded judiciously. "I thought as much. Your manner speaks it, even if your attire ill-suits your degree."
Chris said nothing in reply. He wasn't sure what was meant here.
"How are you called?" the boy asked him.
"Christopher Hughes."
"Ah. Christopher de Hewes," the boy said, speaking slowly. He seemed to be assessing the name in some way that Chris didn't understand. "Where is Hewes? In the Irish land?"
"Thousay trew."
Another short silence fell over them while they sat in the sun.
"Are you a knight?" the boy asked finally.
"Then you are a squire," the boy said, nodding to himself. "That will do." He turned to Chris. "And of what age? Twenty-one year?"
"Close enough. Twenty-four year."
This news caused the boy to blink in surprise. Chris thought, What's wrong with being twenty-four?
"Then, good squire, I am very glad of your assistance, for saving me from Sir Guy and his band." He pointed across the river, where six dark horsemen stood watching them at the water's edge. They were letting their horses drink from the river, but their eyes were fixed on Chris and the boy.
"But I didn't save you," Chris said. "You saved me."
"Didnt?" Another puzzled look.
Chris sighed. Apparently these people didn't use contractions. It was so difficult to express even the simplest thought; he found the effort exhausting. But he tried again: "Yet I did not save you, you saved me."
"Good squire, you are too humble," the boy replied. "I am in your debt for my very life, and it shall be my pleasure to see to your needs, once we are to the castle."
Chris said, "The castle?"
Cautiously, Kate and Marek moved out of the woods, heading toward the monastery. They saw no sign of the riders who had galloped down the trail. The scene was peaceful; directly ahead were the monastery's farm plots, demarcated by low stone walls. At the corner of one plot was a tall hexagonal monument, carved as ornately as the spire of a Gothic church.
"Is that a montjoie?" she said.
"Very good," Marek said. "Yes. It's a milestone, or a land marker. You see them all over."
They moved between the plots, heading toward the ten-foot-high wall that surrounded the entire monastery. The peasants in the field paid no attention to them. On the river, a barge drifted downstream, its cargo bundled in cloth. A boatman standing in the stern sang cheerfully.
Near the monastery wall were clustered the huts of the peasants who worked in the field. Beyond the huts he saw a small door in the wall. The monastery covered such a large area that it had doors on all four sides. This was not the main entrance, but Marek thought it would be better to try here first.
They were moving among the huts when he heard the snort of a horse and the soft reassuring voice of a groom. Marek held out his hand, stopping Kate.
"What?" she whispered.
He pointed. About twenty yards away, hidden from easy view behind one of the huts, five horses were held by a groom. The horses were richly appointed, with saddles covered in red velvet trimmed with silver. Strips of red cloth ran down the flanks.
"Those aren't farm horses," Marek said. But he didn't see the riders anywhere.
"What do we do?" Kate said.
Chris Hughes was following the boy toward the village of Castelgard when his earpiece suddenly crackled. He heard Kate say, "What do we do?" and Marek answered, "I'm not sure."
Chris said, "Have you found the Professor?"
The boy turned and looked back at him. "Do you speak to me, squire?"
"No, boy," Chris said. "Just to myself."
"Justo myself?" the boy repeated, shaking his head. "Your speech is difficult to comprehend."
In the earpiece, Marek said, "Chris. Where the hell are you?"
"Going to the castle," Chris said aloud. "On this lovely day." He looked up at the sky as he spoke, trying to make it appear as if he was talking to himself.
He heard Marek say, "Why are you going there? Are you still with the boy?"
"Yes, very lovely."
The boy turned back again, with a worried look on his face. "Do you speak to the air? Are you with sound mind?"
"Yes," Chris said. "I am with sound mind. I wish only that my companions might join me in the castle."
"Why?" Marek said in his earpiece.
"I am sure they shall join you in good time," the boy said. "Tell me of your companions. Are they Irisher, too? Are they gentles like you, or servants?"
In his ear, Marek said, "Why did you tell him you are gentle?"
"Because it describes me."
"Chris. 'Gentle' means you are nobility," Marek said. "Gentle man, gentle woman. It means of noble birth. You'll draw attention to yourself and get embarrassing questions about your family, which you can't answer."
"Oh," Chris said.
"I am sure it does describe you," the boy said. "And your copains as well? They are gentles?"
"You speak true," Chris said. "My companions are gentles, too."
"Chris, goddamn it," Marek said through the earpiece. "Don't fool with what you don't understand. You're asking for trouble. And if you keep on this way, you will get it."
Standing at the edge of the peasant huts, Marek heard Chris say, "You just get the Professor, will you?" and then the boy asked Chris another question, but it was obscured by a burst of static.
Marek turned and looked across the river toward Castelgard. He could see the boy, walking slightly ahead of Chris.
"Chris," Marek said. "I see you. Turn around and come back. Join us here. We have to stay together."
"Most difficult."
"Why?" Marek said, frustrated.
Chris didn't answer him directly. "And who, good sir, may be the horsemen on the far bank?" Apparently, he was talking to the boy.
Marek shifted his gaze, saw mounted riders at the river's edge, letting their horses drink, watching them go.
"That is Sir Guy de Malegant, called 'Guy Tte Noire.' He is retained in the service of my Lord Oliver. Sir Guy is a knight of renown  -  for his many acts of murder and villainy."
Listening, Kate said, "He can't come back to us here, because of the knights on horseback."
"You speak true," Chris said.
Marek shook his head. "He should never have left us in the first place."
The creak of a door behind them made Marek turn. He saw the familiar figure of Professor Edward Johnston coming through the side door of the monastery wall and stepping into sunlight. He was alone.
Edward Johnston was wearing a doublet of dark blue, and black hose; the clothes were plain, with little decoration or embroidery, lending him a conservative, scholarly air. He could indeed pass for a London clerk on a pilgrimage, Marek thought. Probably that was the way Geoffrey Chaucer, another clerk of the time, had dressed on his own pilgrimage.
The Professor stepped carelessly into the morning sun, and then staggered a little. They rushed up to his side and saw that he was panting. His first words were, "Do you have a marker?"
"Yes," Marek said.
"It's just the two of you?"
"No. Chris also. But he's not here."
Johnston shook his head in quick irritation. "All right. Quickly, this is how it is. Oliver's in Castelgard"  -  he nodded to the town across the river  -  "but he wants to move to La Roque, before Arnaut arrives. His great fear is that secret passage that goes into La Roque. Oliver wants to know where it is. Everyone around here is mad to discover it, because both Oliver and Arnaut want it so badly. It's the key to everything. People here think I'm wise. The Abbot asked me to search the old documents, and I found - "
The door behind them opened and soldiers in maroon-and-gray surcoats rushed them. The soldiers cuffed Marek and Kate, knocking them away roughly, and Kate nearly lost her wig. But they were careful with the Professor, never touching him, walking on either side of him. The soldiers seemed respectful, as if they were a protective escort. Getting to his feet and dusting himself off, Marek had the feeling they had been instructed not to injure him.
Marek watched in silence as Johnston and the soldiers mounted up and set off on the road.
"What do we do?" Kate whispered.
The Professor tapped the side of his head. They heard him say in a singsong, as if praying, "Follow me. I'll try to get us all together. You get Chris."
Following the boy, Chris came to the entrance to Castelgard: double wooden doors, heavily reinforced with iron braces. The doors now stood open, guarded by a soldier in a surcoat of burgundy and gray. The guard greeted them by saying, "Setting a tent? Laying a ground cloth? It is five sols to sell in the market on tournament day."
"Non sumus mercatores," the boy said. "We are not merchants."
Chris heard the guard reply, "Anthoubeest, ye schule payen. Quinquesols maintenant, aut decem postea." But the translation did not follow immediately in his ear; he realized the guard was speaking an odd mixture of English, French and Latin.
Then he heard, "If you are, you must pay. Five sols now, or ten later."
The boy shook his head. "Do you see merchant wares?"
"Herkle, non." In the earpiece: "By Hercules, I do not."
"Then you are answered."
Despite his youth the boy spoke sharply, as if accustomed to commanding. The guard merely shrugged and turned away. The boy and Chris passed through the doors and entered the village.
Immediately inside the walls were several farmhouses and fenced plots. This area smelled strongly of swine. They made their way past thatched houses and pens of grunting pigs, then climbed steps to a winding cobblestone street with stone buildings on both sides. Now they were in the town itself.
The street was narrow and busy, and the buildings two stories high, with the second story overhanging, so no sunlight reached the ground. The buildings were all open shops on the ground floor: a blacksmith, a carpenter who also made barrels, a tailor and a butcher. The butcher, wearing a spattered oilskin apron, was slaughtering a squealing pig on the cobblestones in front of his shop; they stepped around the flowing blood and coils of pale intestine.
The street was noisy and crowded, the odor almost overpowering to Chris, as the boy led him onward. They emerged in a cobbled square with a covered market in the center. Back at their excavations, this was just a field. He paused, looking around, trying to match what he knew with what he now saw.
Across the square, a well-dressed young girl, carrying a basket of vegetables, hurried over to the boy and said with concern, "My dear sir, your long absence does vex Sir Daniel sorely."
The boy looked annoyed to see her. He replied irritably, "Then tell my uncle I will attend him in good time."
"He will be most glad of it," the girl said, and hurried away down a narrow passage.
The boy led Chris in another direction. He made no reference to his conversation, just walked onward, muttering to himself.
They came now to an open ground, directly in front of the castle. It was a bright and colorful place, with knights parading on horses, carrying rippling banners. "Many visitors today," the boy said, "for the tournament."
Directly ahead was the drawbridge leading into the castle. Chris looked up at the looming walls, the high turrets. Soldiers walked the ramparts, staring down at the crowds. The boy led him forward without hesitation. Chris heard his feet thump hollowly on the wood of the drawbridge. There were two guards at the gate. He felt his body tense as he came closer.
But the guards paid no attention at all. One nodded to them absently; the other had his back turned and was scraping mud from his shoe.
Chris was surprised at their indifference. "They do not guard the entry?"
"Why should they?" the boy said. "It is daytime. And we are not under attack."
Three women, their heads wrapped in white cloth, so that only their faces showed, walked out of the castle, carrying baskets. The guards again hardly noticed. Chattering and laughing, the women walked out  -  unchallenged.
Chris realized that he was confronted by one of those historical anachronisms so deeply ingrained no one ever thought to question it. Castles were strongholds, and they always had a defensible entrance  -  a moat, drawbridge, and so on. And everybody assumed that the entrance was fiercely guarded at all times.
But, as the boy had said, why should it be? In times of peace, the castle was a busy social center, people coming and going to see the lord, to deliver goods. There was no reason to guard it. Especially, as the boy said, during daytime.
Chris found himself thinking of modern office buildings, which had guards only at night; during the day, the guards were present, but only to give information. And that was probably what these guards did, too.
On the other hand . . .
As he walked through the entrance, he glanced up at the spikes of the portcullis  -  the large iron grate now raised above his head. That grate could be lowered in a moment, he knew. And if it was, there would be no entry into the castle. And no escape.
He had entered the castle easily enough. But he was not sure it would be as easy to leave.
They entered a large courtyard, stone on all sides. There were many horses here; soldiers wearing maroon-and-gray tunics sat in small groups, eating their midday meal. He saw passageways of wood high above him, running the length of the walls. Directly ahead he saw another building, with three-story-high stone walls, and turrets above. It was a castle within the castle. The boy led him toward it.
To one side, a door stood open. A single guard munched a piece of chicken. The boy said, "We are to the Lady Claire. She wishes this Irisher to do her service."
"So be it," the guard grunted, uninterested; they went inside. Chris saw an archway directly ahead, leading to the great hall, where a crowd of men and women stood talking. Everyone seemed richly dressed; their voices echoed off the stone walls.
But the boy did not give him much opportunity to look. He led Chris up a winding, narrow stair to the second floor, then down a stone corridor, and finally into a suite of rooms.
Three maids, all dressed in white, rushed forward to the boy and embraced him. They appeared very relieved. "By the grace of God, my Lady, you are returned!"
Chris said, "My Lady?"
Even as he said it, the black hat was thrown away, and golden hair tumbled down over her shoulders. She gave a little bow that turned into a curtsy. "I am heartfelt sorry, and beg your forgiveness for this deception."
"Who are you?" Chris said, stunned.
"I am called Claire."
She rose from her curtsy and looked directly into his eyes. He saw that she was older than he had thought, perhaps twenty-two or -three. And very beautiful.
He gaped and said nothing. He had no idea what to say, or to do. He felt foolish and awkward.
In the silence, one of the maids came forward, curtsied and said, "If it please you, she is the Lady Claire of Eltham, newly widowed of Sir Geoffrey of Eltham, who holds great estates in Guyenne and Middlesex. Sir Geoffrey died of his wounds from Poitiers, and now Sir Oliver  -  ruler of this castle  -  serves as my Lady's guardian. Sir Oliver feels she must be married again, and he has chosen Sir Guy de Malegant, a nobleman well known in these regions. But this match, my Lady refuses."
Claire turned and shot the girl a warning glance. But the girl, oblivious, chattered on. "My Lady says to all the world that Sir Guy lacks the means to defend her estates in France and England. Yet Sir Oliver will have his fee from this match, and Guy has - "
"My Lady," the girl said, scurrying backward. She rejoined the other maids, who whispered in the corner, apparently chastising her.
"Enough talk," Claire said. "Here is my savior of this day, Squire Christopher of Hewes. He has delivered me from the predations of Sir Guy, who sought to take by force what he could not win freely at court."
Chris said, "No, no, that is not what happened at all - "
He broke off, as he realized that everyone was staring at him, their mouths open, their eyes wide.
"Sooth, he speaks queerly," Claire said, "for he comes from some remote part in the lands of Eire. And he is modest, as befits a gentle. He did save me, so I shall today introduce him to my guardian, once Christopher has proper attire." She turned to one of the ladies. "Is not our horse master, Squire Brandon, of his same length? Go to and fetch me his indigo doublet, his silver belt, and his best white hose." She handed the girl a purse. "Pay what he asks, but be quick."
The girl scurried off. As she left, she passed a gloomy elderly man, standing in the shadows, watching. He wore a rich robe of maroon velvet with silver fleurs-de-lis embroidered on it, and an ermine collar. "How now, my Lady?" he said, coming forward.
She curtsied to him. "Well, Sir Daniel."
"You are safely returned."
"I give thanks to God."
The gloomy man snorted. "As well you should. You strain even His patience. And did your trip yield success equal to its dangers?"
Claire bit her lip. "I fear not."
"Did you see the Abbot?"
A slight hesitation. "No."
"Speak me the truth, Claire."
The girl shook her head. "Sir, I did not. He was abroad, on a hunt."
"A pity," Sir Daniel said. "Why did you not await him?"
"I dared not do so, for Lord Oliver's men broke sanctuary, to take the Magister away by force. I feared discovery, and so fled."
"Yes, yes, this troublesome Magister," Sir Daniel reflected gloomily. "He is on every tongue. Do you know what they say? That he can make himself appear in a flash of light." Sir Daniel shook his head. It was impossible to tell whether he believed it or not. "He must be a skilled Magister of the gunpowder." He pronounced it gonne-poulder, and spoke the word slowly, as if it were exotic and unfamiliar. "Did you set eyes upon this Magister?"
"Indeed. I spoke to him."
"With the Abbot gone, I sought him out. For they say the Magister has befriended the Abbot, these recent days."
Chris Hughes was struggling to follow this conversation, and he realized belatedly that they were talking about the Professor. He said, "Magister?"
Claire said, "Do you know the Magister? Edward de Johnes?"
He immediately backpedaled. "Uh . . . no . . . no, I don't, and - "
At this, Sir Daniel stared at Chris in open astonishment. He turned to Claire. "What does he say?"
"He says he does not know the Magister."
The old man remained astonished. "In what tongue?"
"A kind of English, Sir Daniel, with some Gaelic, so I believe."
"No Gaelic as I have ever heard," he said. He turned to Chris. "Speak you la Langue-doc? No? Loquerisquide Latine?"
He was asking if he spoke Latin. Chris had an academic knowledge of Latin, a reading knowledge. He'd never tried to speak it. Faltering, he said, "Non, Senior Danielis, solum perpaululum. Perdoleo." Only a little. Sorry.
"Per, per . . . dicendo ille Ciceroni persimilis est." He speaks like Cicero.
"Perdoleo." Sorry.
"Then you may profitably be silent." The old man turned back to Claire. "What did the Magister say to you?"
"He could not assist me."
"Did he know the secret we seek?"
"He said he did not."
"But the Abbot knows," said Sir Daniel. "The Abbot must know. It was his predecessor, the Bishop of Laon, who served as architect for the last repairs of La Roque."
Claire said, "The Magister said that Laon was not the architect."
"No?" Sir Daniel frowned. "And how does the Magister know that?"
"I believe the Abbot told him. Or perhaps he saw it among the old papers. The Magister has undertaken to sort and arrange the parchments of Sainte-Mre, for the benefit of the monks."
"Does he," Sir Daniel said thoughtfully. "I wonder why."
"I had no time to ask before Lord Oliver's men broke sanctuary."
"Well, the Magister will be here soon enough," Sir Daniel said. "And Lord Oliver himself will ask these questions. . . ." He frowned, clearly unhappy at this thought.
The old man turned abruptly to a young boy of nine or ten, standing behind him. "Take Squire Christopher to my chamber, where he may bathe and clean himself."
At this, Claire shot the old man a hard look. "Uncle, do not thwart my plans."
"Have I ever done so?"
"You know that you have tried."
"Dear child," he said, "my sole concern is ever for your safety  -  and your honor."
"And my honor, Uncle, is not yet pledged." With that, Claire walked boldly up to Chris, put her hand around his neck, and looked into his eyes. "I shall count every moment you are gone, and miss you with all my heart," she said softly, her eyes liquid. "Return to me soon."
She brushed her lips lightly across his mouth, and stepped back, releasing him reluctantly, fingers trailing away from his neck. He felt dazed, staring into her eyes, seeing how beautiful -
Sir Daniel coughed, turned to the boy. "See to Squire Christopher, and assist him in his bath."
The boy bowed to Chris. Everyone in the room was silent. This was apparently his cue to leave. He nodded, and said, "I thank you." He waited for the astonished looks, but for once, there were none; they seemed to understand what he had said. Sir Daniel gave him a frosty nod, and Chris left the room.