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The horses clattered across the drawbridge. The Professor stared straight ahead, ignoring the soldiers who escorted him. The guards at the castle gate barely glanced up as the riders entered the castle. Then the Professor was gone from sight.
Standing near the drawbridge, Kate said, "What do we do now? Do we follow him?"
Marek didn't answer her. Looking back, she saw that he was staring fixedly at two knights on horseback, fighting with broadswords on the field outside the castle. It appeared to be some kind of demonstration or practice; the knights were surrounded by a circle of young men in livery - some wearing bright green, the others in yellow and gold, apparently the colors of the two knights. And a large crowd of spectators had gathered, laughing and shouting insults and encouragement to one knight or the other. The horses turned in tight circles, almost touching each other, bringing their armored riders face to face. The swords clanged again and again in the morning air.
Marek stared, without moving.
She tapped him on the shoulder. "Listen, Andre, the Professor - "
"In a minute."
"But - "
"In a minute."
For the first time, Marek felt a twinge of uncertainty. Until now, nothing he had seen in this world had seemed out of place, or unexpected. The monastery was just as he had expected. The peasants in the fields were as he had expected. The tournament being set up was as he had pictured it. And when he entered the town of Castelgard, he again found it exactly as he had thought it would be. Kate had been appalled by the butcher on the cobblestones, and the stench of the tanner's vats, but Marek was not. It was all as he had imagined it, years ago.
But not this, he thought, watching the knights fight.
It was so fast! The swordplay was so swift and continuous, attempting to slash with both downswing and backswing, so that it looked more like fencing than sword fighting. The clangs of impact came only a second or two apart. And the fight proceeded without hesitation or pause.
Marek had always imagined these fights as taking place in slow motion: ungainly armored men wielding swords so heavy that each swing was an effort, carrying dangerous momentum and requiring time to recover and reset before the next swing. He had read accounts of how exhausted men were after battle, and he had assumed it was the result of the extended effort of slow fights, encased in steel.
These warriors were big and powerful in every way. Their horses were enormous, and they themselves appeared to be six feet or more, and extremely strong.
Marek had never been fooled by the small size of the armor in museum display cases - he knew that any armor that found its way into a museum was ceremonial and had never been worn in anything more hazardous than a medieval parade. Marek also suspected, though he could not prove it, that much of the surviving armor - highly decorated, chiseled and chased - was intended only for display, and had been made at three-quarter scale, the better to show the delicacy of the craftsmen's designs.
Genuine battle armor never survived. And he had read enough accounts to know that the most celebrated warriors of medieval times were invariably big men - tall, muscular and unusually strong. They were from the nobility; they were better fed; and they were big. He had read how they trained, and how they delighted in performing feats of strength for the amusement of the ladies.
And yet, somehow, he had never imagined anything remotely like this. These men fought furiously, swiftly and continuously - and it looked as if they could go all day. Neither gave the least indication of fatigue; if anything, they seemed to be enjoying their exertions.
As he watched their aggressiveness and speed, Marek realized that left to his own devices, this was exactly the way he himself would choose to fight - quickly, with the conditioning and reserves of stamina to wear down an opponent. He had only imagined a slower fighting style from an unconscious assumption that men in the past were weaker or slower or less imaginative than he was, as a modern man.
Marek knew this assumption of superiority was a difficulty faced by every historian. He just hadn't thought he was guilty of it.
But clearly, he was.
It took him a while to realize, through the shouting of the crowd, that the combatants were in such superb physical condition that they could expend breath shouting as they fought; they hurled a stream of taunts and insults at each other between blows.
And then he saw that their swords were not blunted, that they were swinging real battle swords, with razor-sharp edges. Yet they clearly intended each other no harm; this was just an amusing warm-up to the coming tournament. Their cheerful, casual approach to deadly hazard was almost as unnerving as the speed and intensity with which they fought.
The battle continued for another ten minutes, until one mighty swing unhorsed one knight. He fell to the ground but immediately jumped up laughing, as easily as if he were wearing no armor. Money changed hands. There were cries of "Again! Again!" A fistfight broke out among the liveried boys. The two knights walked off, arm in arm, toward the inn.
Marek heard Kate say, "Andre. . . ."
He turned slowly toward her.
"Andre, is everything all right?"
"Everything is fine," he said. "But I have a lot to learn."
They walked down the castle drawbridge, approaching the guards. He felt Kate tense alongside him. "What do we do? What do we say?"
"Don't worry. I speak Occitan."
But as they came closer, another fight broke out on the field beyond the moat, and the guards watched it. They were entirely preoccupied as Marek and Kate passed through the stone arch and entered the castle courtyard.
"We just walked in," Kate said, surprised. She looked around the courtyard. "Now what?"
It was freezing, Chris thought. He sat naked, except for his undershorts, on a stool in Sir Daniel's small apartment. Beside him was a basin of steaming water, and a hand cloth for washing. The boy had brought the basin of water up from the kitchen, carrying it as if it were gold; his manner indicated that it was a sign of favor to be treated to hot water.
Chris had dutifully scrubbed himself, refusing the boy's offers of assistance. The bowl was small, and the water soon black. But eventually he'd managed to scrape the mud from beneath his fingernails, off his body and even off his face, with the aid of a tiny metal mirror the boy handed him.
Finally, he pronounced himself satisfied. But the boy, with a look of distress, said, "Master Christopher, you are not clean." And he insisted on doing the rest.
So Chris sat shivering on his wooden stool while the boy scrubbed him for what seemed like an hour. Chris was perplexed; he'd always thought that medieval people were dirty and smelly, immersed in the filth of the age. Yet these people seemed to make a fetish of cleanliness. Everyone he saw in the castle was clean, and there were no odors.
Even the toilet, which the boy insisted he use before bathing, was not as awful as Chris had expected. Located behind a wooden door in the bedroom, it was a narrow closet, fitted with a stone seat above a basin that drained into a pipe. Apparently, waste flowed down to the ground floor of the castle, where it was removed daily. The boy explained that each morning a servant flushed the pipe with scented water, then placed a fresh bouquet of sweet-smelling herbs in a clip on the wall. So the odor was not objectionable. In fact, he thought ruefully, he'd smelled much worse in airplane toilets.
And to top it all, these people wiped themselves with strips of white linen! No, he thought, things were not as he had expected.
One advantage of being forced to sit there was that he was able to try speaking to the boy. The boy was tolerant, and replied slowly to Chris, as if to an idiot. But this enabled Chris to hear him before the earpiece translation, and he quickly discovered that imitation helped; if he overcame his embarrassment and employed the archaic phrases he had read in texts - many of which the young boy himself used - then the boy understood him much more easily. So Chris gradually fell to saying "Methinks" instead of "I think," and "an" instead of "if," and "for sooth" instead of "in truth." And with each small change, the boy seemed to understand him better.
Chris was still sitting on the stool when Sir Daniel entered the room. He brought neatly folded clothes, rich and expensive-looking. He placed them on the bed.
"So, Christopher of Hewes. You have involved yourself with our clever beauty."
"She hath saved mine life." He pronounced it say-ved. And Sir Daniel seemed to understand.
"I hope it will not cause you trouble."
Sir Daniel sighed. "She tells me, friend Chris, that you are gentle, yet not a knight. You are a squire?"
"In sooth, yes."
"A very old squire," Sir Daniel said. "What is your training at arms?"
"My training at arms . . ." Chris frowned. "Well, I have, uh - "
"Have you any at all? Speak plain: What is your training?"
Chris decided he had better tell the truth. "In sooth, I am - I mean, trained - in my studies - as a scholar."
"A scholar?" The old man shook his head, incomprehending. "Escolie? Esne discipulus? Studesne sub magistro?" You study under a master?
"Ita est." Even so.
"Uh . . . at, uh, Oxford."
"Oxford?" Sir Daniel snorted. "Then you have no business here, with such as my Lady. Believe me when I say this is no place for a scolere. Let me tell you how your circumstances now lie."
"Lord Oliver needs money to pay his soldiers, and he has plundered all he can from the nearby towns. So now he presses Claire to marry, that he may gain his fee. Guy de Malegant has tendered a handsome offer, very pleasing to Lord Oliver. But Guy is not wealthy, and he cannot make good on his fee unless he mortgages part of my Lady's holdings. To this she will not accede. Many believe that Lord Oliver and Guy have long since made a private agreement - one to sell the Lady Claire, the other to sell her lands."
Chris said nothing.
"There is a further impediment to the match. Claire despises Malegant, whom she suspects had a hand in her husband's death. Guy was in attendance of Geoffrey at the time of his death. Everyone was surprised by the suddenness of his departure from this world. Geoffrey was a young and vigorous knight. Although his wounds were serious, he made steady recovery. No one knows the truth of that day, yet there are rumors - many rumors - of poison."
"I see," Chris said.
"Do you? I doubt it. For consider: my Lady might as well be a prisoner of Lord Oliver in this castle. She may herself slip out, but she cannot secretly remove her entire retinue. If she secretly departs and returns to England - which is her wish - Lord Oliver will take his revenge against me, and others of her household. She knows this, and so she must stay.
"Lord Oliver wishes her to marry, and my Lady devises stratagems to postpone it. It is true she is clever. But Lord Oliver is not a patient man, and he will force the matter soon. Now, her only hope lies there." Sir Daniel walked over and pointed out the window.
Chris came to the window and looked.
From this high window, he saw a view over the courtyard, and the battlements of the outer castle wall. Beyond he saw the roofs of the town, then the town wall, with guards walking the parapets. Then fields and countryside stretching off into the distance.
Chris looked at Sir Daniel questioningly.
Sir Daniel said, "There, my scolere. The fires."
He was pointing in the far distance. Squinting, Chris could just make out faint columns of smoke disappearing into the blue haze. It was at the limit of what he could see.
"That is the company of Arnaut de Cervole," Sir Daniel said. "They are encamped no more than fifteen miles distant. They will reach here in a day - two days at most. All know it."
"And Sir Oliver?"
"He knows his battle with Arnaut will be fierce."
"And yet he holds a tournament - "
"That is a matter of his honor," Sir Daniel said. "His prickly honor. Certes, he would disband it, if he could. But he does not dare. And herein lies your hazard."
Sir Daniel sighed. He began pacing. "Dress you now, to meet my Lord Oliver in proper fashion. I shall try to avert the coming disaster."
The old man turned and walked out of the room. Chris looked at the boy. He had stopped scrubbing.
"What disaster?" he said.
It was a peculiarity of medieval scholarship in the twentieth century that there was not a single contemporary picture that showed what the interior of a fourteenth-century castle looked like. Not a painting, or an illuminated manuscript image, or a notebook sketch - there was nothing at all from that time. The earliest images of fourteenth-century life had actually been made in the fifteenth century, and the interiors - and food, and costumes - they portrayed were correct for the fifteenth century, not the fourteenth.
As a result, no modern scholar knew what furniture was used, how walls were decorated, or how people dressed and behaved. The absence of information was so complete that when the apartments of King Edward I were excavated in the Tower of London, the reconstructed walls had to be left as exposed plaster, because no one could say what decorations might have been there.
This was also why artists' reconstructions of the fourteenth century tended to show bleak interiors, rooms with bare walls and few furnishings - perhaps a chair, or a chest - but not much else. The very absence of contemporary imagery was taken to imply a sparseness to life at that time.
All this flashed through Kate Erickson's mind as she entered the great hall of Castelgard. What she was about to see, no historian had ever seen before. She walked in, slipping through the crowd, following Marek. And she stared, stunned by the richness and the chaos displayed before her.
The great hall sparkled like an enormous jewel. Sunlight streamed through high windows onto walls that gleamed with tapestries laced with gold, so that reflections danced on the red-and-gold-painted ceiling. One side of the room was hung with a vast patterned cloth: silver fleurs-de-lis on a background of deep blue. On the opposite wall, a tapestry depicting a battle: knights fighting in full regalia, their armor silver, their surcoats blue and white, red and gold; their fluttering banners threaded with gold.
At the end of the room stood a huge ornate fireplace, large enough for a person to walk into without ducking, its carved mantelpiece gilded and shimmering. In front of the fire stood a huge wicker screen, also gilded. And above the mantel hung a patterned tapestry of swans flying on a field of lacy red and gold flowers.
The room was inherently elegant, richly and beautifully executed - and rather feminine, to modern eyes. Its beauty and refinement stood in marked contrast to the behavior of the people in the room, which was noisy, boisterous, crude.
In front of the fire was laid the high table, draped in white linen, with dishes of gold, all heaped high with food. Little dogs scampered across the table, helping themselves to the food as they liked - until the man in the center of the table swatted them away with a curse.
Lord Oliver de Vannes was about thirty, with small eyes set in a fleshy, dissolute face. His mouth was permanently turned down in a sneer; he tended to keep his lips tight, since he was missing several teeth. His clothes were as ornate as the room: a robe of blue and gold, with a high-necked gold collar, and a fur hat. His necklace consisted of blue stones each the size of a robin's egg. He wore rings on several fingers, huge oval gems in heavy gold settings. He stabbed with his knife at food and ate noisily, grunting to his companions.
But despite the elegant accoutrements, the impression he conveyed was of a dangerous petulance - his red-rimmed eyes darted around the room as he ate, alert to any insult, spoiling for a fight. He was edgy and quick to strike; when one of the little dogs came back to eat again, Oliver unhesitatingly jabbed it in its rear with the point of his knife; the animal jumped off and ran yelping and bleeding from the room.
Lord Oliver laughed, wiped the dog's blood off the tip of his blade, and continued to eat.
The men seated at his table shared the joke. From the look of them, they were all soldiers, Oliver's contemporaries, and all were elegantly dressed - though none matched the finery of their leader. And three or four women, young, pretty and bawdy, in tight-fitting dresses and with loose, wanton hair, giggling as their hands groped beneath the table, completed the scene.
Kate stared, and a word came unbidden to her mind: warlord. This was a medieval warlord, sitting with his soldiers and their prostitutes in the castle he had captured.
A wooden staff banged on the floor, and a herald cried, "My Lord! Magister Edward de Johnes!" Turning, she saw Johnston shoved through the crowd, toward the table at the front.
Lord Oliver looked up, wiping gravy from his jowls with the back of his hand. "I bid you welcome, Magister Edwardus. Though I do not know if you are Magister or magicien."
"Lord Oliver," the Professor said, speaking in Occitan. He gave a slight nod of the head.
"Magister, why so cool," Oliver said, pretending to pout. "You wound me, you do. What have I done to deserve this reserve? Are you displeased I brought you from the monastery? You shall eat as well here, I assure you. Better. Anywise, the Abbot has no need of you - and I do."
Johnston stood erect, and did not speak.
"You have nothing to say?" Oliver said, glaring at Johnston. His face darkened. "That will change," he growled.
Johnston remained unmoving, silent.
The moment passed. Lord Oliver seemed to collect himself. He smiled blandly. "But come, come, let us not quarrel. With all courtesy and respect, I seek your counsel," Oliver said. "You are wise, and I have much need of wisdom - so these worthies tell me." Guffaws at the table. "And I am told you can see the future."
"No man sees that," Johnston said.
"Oh so? I think you do, Magister. And I pray you, see your own. I would not see a man of your distinction suffer much. Know you how your namesake, our late king, Edward the Foolish, met his end? I see by your face that you do. Yet you were not among those present in the castle. And I was." He smiled grimly and sat back in his chair. "There was never a mark upon his body."
Johnston nodded slowly. "His screams could be heard for miles."
Kate looked questioningly to Marek, who whispered, "They're talking about Edward II of England. He was imprisoned and killed. His captors didn't want any sign of foul play, so they stuck a tube up his rectum and inserted a red-hot poker into his bowels until he died."
"He was also gay," Marek whispered, "so it was thought the manner of his execution demonstrated great wit."
"Indeed, his screams were heard for miles," Oliver was saying. "So think on it. You know many things, and I would know them, too. You are my counselor, or you are not long for this world."
Lord Oliver was interrupted by a knight who slipped down the table and whispered in his ear. This knight was richly dressed in maroon and gray, but he had the tough, weathered face of a campaigner. A deep scar, almost a welt, ran down his face from forehead to chin and disappeared into his high collar. Oliver listened, and then said to him, "Oh? You think so, Robert?"
At this, the scarred knight whispered again, never taking his eyes off the Professor. Lord Oliver was also staring at the Professor while he listened. "Well, we shall see," Lord Oliver said.
The stocky knight continued to whisper, and Oliver nodded.
Standing in the crowd, Marek turned to the courtier beside him and, speaking in Occitan, said, "Pray, what worthy now has Sir Oliver's ear?"
"Faith, friend, that is Sir Robert de Kere."
"De Kere?" Marek said. "I do not know of him."
"He is new to the retinue, not yet in service a year, but he has found much favor in Sir Oliver's eyes."
"Oh so? Why is that?"
The man shrugged wearily, as if to say, Who knows why things happen at the high table? But he answered, "Sir Robert has a martial disposition, and he has been a trusted adviser to Lord Oliver on matters of warfare." The man lowered his voice. "But certes, I think he cannot be pleased to see another adviser, and one so eminent, before him now."
"Ah," Marek said, nodding. "I understand."
Sir Robert did indeed seem to be pressing his case, whispering urgently, until finally Oliver made a quick flicking sign with one hand, as if brushing away a mosquito. Instantly, the knight bowed and stepped back, standing behind Sir Oliver.
Oliver said, "Magister."
"I am informed that you know the method of Greek Fire."
Standing in the crowd, Marek snorted. He whispered to Kate, "No one knows that." And no one did. Greek Fire was a famous historical conundrum, a devastating incendiary weapon from the sixth century, the precise nature of which was debated by historians even now. No one knew what Greek Fire really was, or how it was made.
"Yes," Johnston said. "I know this method."
Marek stared. What was this? Clearly the Professor had recognized a rival, but this was a dangerous game to be playing. He would undoubtedly be asked to prove it.
"You can yourself make Greek Fire?" Oliver said.
"My Lord, I can."
"Ah." Oliver turned and shot a glance back at Sir Robert. It seemed the trusted adviser had given wrong advice. Oliver turned back to the Professor.
"It will not be difficult," the Professor said, "if I have my assistants."
So that's it, Marek thought. The Professor was making promises, in an attempt to get them all together.
"Eh? Assistants? You have assistants?"
"I do, my Lord, and - "
"Well of course they can assist you, Magister. And if they do not, we shall provide you whatever help you need. Have no concern there. But what of Dew Fire - the fire of Nathos? You know it, as well?"
"I do, my Lord."
"And by demonstration you will show it to me?"
"Whenever you wish, my Lord."
"Very good, Magister. Very good." Lord Oliver paused, looking intently at the Professor. "And you also know the one secret that I wish to know above all others?"
"Sir Oliver, that secret I do not know."
"You do! And you will answer me!" he shouted, banging down a goblet. His face was bright red, the veins standing out on his forehead; his voice echoed in the hall, which had gone suddenly silent. "I will have your answer this day!" One of the small dogs on the table cringed; with the back of his hand, he smacked it, sending it yelping to the floor. When the girl beside him started to protest, he swore and slapped her hard across the face, the blow knocking her, chair and all, on her back. The girl did not make a sound, or move. She remained motionless, her feet up in the air.
"Oh, I am wrothed! I am sore wrothed!" Lord Oliver snarled, standing up. He looked around him angrily, his hand on his sword, his eyes sweeping the great hall, as if seeking some culprit.
Everyone inside the hall was silent, unmoving, staring down at their feet. It was as if the room had suddenly become a still life, in which only Lord Oliver moved. He puffed in fury, finally took out his sword, and crashed the blade down on the table. Plates and goblets jumped and clattered, the sword buried in the wood.
Oliver glared at the Professor, but he was gaining control, his fury passing. "Magister, you will do my bidding!" he cried. Then he nodded to the guards. "Take him away, and give him cause to meditate."
Roughly, guards grabbed the Professor and hauled him back through the silent crowds. Kate and Marek stepped aside as he passed, but the Professor did not see them.
Lord Oliver glared at the silent room. "Be seated and be merry," he snarled, "before I am in temper!"
Immediately, the musicians began to play, and the noise of the crowd filled the hall.
Soon after, Robert de Kere hurried out of the room, following the Professor. Marek thought that departure meant nothing good. He nudged Kate, indicating that they should follow de Kere. They were moving toward the door when the herald's staff banged on the floor.
"My Lord! The Lady Claire d'Eltham and Squire Christopher de Hewes."
They paused. "Hell," Marek said.
A beautiful young woman came into the hall, with Chris Hughes walking at her side. Chris was now wearing rich, courtly clothes. He looked very distinguished - and very confused.
Standing beside Kate, Marek tapped his ear and whispered, "Chris. As long as you're in this room, don't speak, and don't act. Do you understand?"
Chris nodded slightly.
"Behave as if you don't understand anything. It shouldn't be difficult."
Chris and the woman passed through the crowd and walked directly to the high table, where Lord Oliver watched her approach with open annoyance. The woman saw it, dipped low, and stayed there, close to the ground, head bowed in submission.
"Come, come," Lord Oliver said irritably, waving a drumstick. "This obsecration ill-suits you."
"My Lord." She rose to her feet.
Oliver snorted. "And what have you dragged in with you today? Another dazzled conquest?"
"If it please my Lord, I present you Christopher of Hewes, a squire of Eire, who saved me from villains who would have kidnapped me today, or worse."
"Eh? Villains? Kidnapped?" Amused, Lord Oliver looked down the table at his knights. "Sir Guy? What say you?"
A dark-complected man stood angrily. Sir Guy de Malegant was dressed entirely in black - black chain mail and a black surcoat, with a black eagle embroidered on his chest. "My Lord, I fear my Lady amuses herself at our expense. She knows full well I set my men to save her, seeing that she was alone and in distress." Sir Guy walked toward Chris, glaring at him. "It is this man, my Lord, who placed her at risk of her life. I cannot think she now defends him, except as display of her uncommon wit."
"Eh?" Oliver said. "Wit? My Lady Claire, what wit is here?"
The woman shrugged. "Only the witless, my Lord, see wit where none is writ."
The dark knight snorted. "Quick words, to quick conceal what lies beneath." Malegant walked up to Chris, until they were standing face to face, inches apart. He stared intensely as he slowly, deliberately began to take off his chain-mail glove. "Squire Christopher, is it how you are called?"
Chris said nothing, only nodded.
Chris was terrified. Trapped in a situation he did not understand, standing in a room full of bloodthirsty soldiers, no better than a bunch of street-corner thugs, and facing this dark, angry man whose breath stank of rotting teeth, garlic and wine - it was all he could do to keep his knees from shaking.
Through his earpiece, he heard Marek say, "Don't speak - no matter what."
Sir Guy squinted at him. "I asked of you a question, squire. Will you answer?" He was still taking off his glove, and Chris felt sure he was about to hit him with his bare fist.
Marek said, "Don't speak."
Chris was only too happy to follow that advice. He took a deep breath, trying to control himself. His legs were tremulous, rubbery. He felt as if he might collapse in front of this man. He did his best to steady himself. Another deep breath.
Sir Guy turned to the woman. "Madam, does he speak, your savior squire? Or merely sigh?"
"If it please Sir Guy, he is of foreign parts, and often does not comprehend our tongue."
"Dic mihi nomen tuum, scutari." Tell me your name.
"Nor Latin, I fear, Sir Guy."
Malegant looked disgusted. "Commodissime. Most convenient, this dumb squire, for we cannot ask how he comes here, and for what purpose. This Irish squire is far from home. And yet he is not a pilgrim. He is not in service. What is he? Why is he here? See how he trembles. What can he fear? Nothing from us, my Lord - unless he be the creature of Arnaut, come to see how the land lies. This would make him dumb. A coward would not dare speak."
Marek whispered, "Do not respond. . . ."
Malegant poked Chris hard on the chest. "So, cowardly squire, I call you spy and scoundrel, and not man enough to admit your true cause. I would have contempt for you, were you not beneath it."
The knight finished removing his glove, and with a disgusted shake of his head, he dropped it on the floor. The chain-mail glove landed with a clunk on Chris's toes. Sir Guy turned insolently away and started back to the table.
Everyone in the room was staring at Chris.
Beside him, Claire whispered, "The glove. . . ."
He glanced at her sideways.
What about the glove? he wondered, as he bent over and picked it up. It was heavy in his hand. He held the glove out to Claire, but she had already turned away, saying, "Knight, the squire has accepted your challenge."
Chris thought, What challenge?
Sir Guy said immediately, "Three lances untipped, outrance."
Marek said, "You poor bastard. Do you know what you just did?"
Sir Guy turned to Lord Oliver at the high table. "My Lord, I pray you let the day's tourney begin with our challenge combat."
"So it shall be," Oliver said.
Sir Daniel slipped forward through the crowd and bowed. "My Lord Oliver, my niece carries this jest too far, with unworthy result. It may amuse her to see Sir Guy, a knight of renown, provoked into combat with a mere squire, and so dishonored by the doing. But it ill-serves Sir Guy to be taken in by her ruse."
"Is this so?" Lord Oliver said, looking at the dark knight.
Sir Guy Malegant spat on the floor. "A squire? Mark me, this is no squire. Here is a knight in hiding, a knave and a spy. His deceit shall have its reward. I will contest him this day."
Sir Daniel said, "If it please my Lord, I think it is not meet. Sooth he is a squire only, of little training at arms, and no match for your worthy knight."
Chris was still trying to understand what was going on, when Marek stepped forward, speaking fluently in a foreign language that sounded something like French, but not exactly. He guessed it was Occitan. Chris heard the translation in his earpiece.
"My Lord," Marek said, bowing smoothly, "this worthy gentleman speaks truth. Squire Christopher is my companion, but he is no warrior. In fairness, I ask you to allow Christopher to name a champion in his stead, to meet this challenge."
"Eh? Champion? What champion? I do not know you."
Chris saw that Lady Claire was staring at Marek with unconcealed interest. He returned a brief glance before speaking to Oliver.
"Please my Lord, I am Sir Andre de Marek, late of Hainaut. I offer myself as his champion, and God willing, I shall give good account with this noble knight."
Lord Oliver rubbed his chin, thinking.
Seeing his indecision, Sir Daniel pressed forward. "My Lord, to begin your tourney with unequal combat does not enhance the day, nor make it memorable in the minds of men. I think de Marek will give better sport."
Lord Oliver turned back to Marek to see what he would say to that.
"My Lord," Marek said, "if my friend Christopher is a spy, then so am I. In defaming him, Sir Guy has defamed me as well, and I beg leave to defend my good name."
Lord Oliver seemed entertained by this new complication. "How say you, Guy?"
"Faith," the dark knight said, "I grant you this de Marek may be a worthy second, if his arm has the skill of his tongue. But as a second, it is meet he fight my second, Sir Charles de Gaune."
A tall man stood at the end of the table. He had a pale face, a flat nose and pink eyes; he resembled a pit bull. His tone was contemptuous as he said, "I shall be second, with pleasure."
Marek made one final attempt. "So," he said, "it appears Sir Guy is afraid to fight me first."
At this, the Lady Claire openly smiled at Marek. She was clearly interested in him. And it seemed to annoy Sir Guy.
"I fear no man," Guy said, "least of all a Hainauter. If you survive my second - which I much doubt - then I will gladly fight you after, and bring your insolence to an end."
"So be it," Lord Oliver said, and turned away. His tone indicated that the discussion was ended.
The horses wheeled and charged, racing past each other on the grassy field. The ground shook as the big animals thundered past Marek and Chris, who were standing at the low fence, watching the practice runs. To Chris, the tournament field was huge - the size of a football field - and on two sides, the stands had been completed, and ladies were beginning to be seated. Spectators from the countryside, roughly dressed and noisy, lined the rail.
Another pair of riders charged, their horses snorting as they galloped. Marek said, "How well do you ride?"
He shrugged. "I rode with Sophie."
"Then I think I can keep you alive, Chris," Marek said. "But you must do exactly as I tell you."
"So far, you haven't been doing what I tell you," Marek reminded him. "This time, you must."
"All you have to do," Marek said, "is stay mounted on the horse long enough to take the hit. Sir Guy will have no choice but to aim for the chest when he sees how badly you ride, because the chest is the largest and steadiest target on a galloping rider. I want you to take his lance square on the chest, on the breastplate. You understand?"
"I take his lance on the chest," Chris said, looking very unhappy.
"When the lance strikes you, let yourself to be unseated. It shouldn't be difficult. Fall to the ground and do not move, so you appear to have been knocked unconscious. Which you may be. Under no circumstances get to your feet. Do you understand?"
"Don't get to my feet."
"That's right. No matter what happens, you continue to lie there. If Sir Guy has unhorsed you, and you are unconscious, the match is over. But if you get up, he will call for another lance, or he will fight you on foot with broadswords, and kill you."
"Don't get up," Chris repeated.
"That's right," Marek said. "No matter what. Don't get up." He clapped Chris on the shoulder. "With luck, you'll survive just fine."
"Jesus," Chris said.
More horses charged past them, shaking the ground.
Leaving the field behind, they passed among the many tents arranged outside the tournament ground. The tents were small and round, boldly colored with stripes and zigzag designs. Pennants rippled in the air above each tent. Horses were tied up outside. Pages and squires scurried to and fro, carrying armor, saddles, hay, water. Several pages were rolling barrels over the ground. The barrels made a soft hissing sound.
"That's sand," Marek explained. "They roll the chain mail in sand to remove rust."
"Uh-huh." Chris tried to focus on details, to take his mind off what was to come. But he felt as if he were going to his own execution.
They entered a tent where three pages were waiting. A warming fire burned in one corner; the armor was laid out on a ground cloth. Marek inspected it briefly, then said, "It's fine." He turned to leave.
"Where are you going?"
"To another tent, to dress."
"But I don't know how - "
"The pages will dress you," Marek said, and left.
Chris looked at the armor lying in pieces on the ground, especially at the helmet, which had one of those pointy snouts, like a large duck. There was only a little slit for the eyes. But beside it was another helmet, more ordinary-looking, and Chris thought that -
"Good my squire, if it please you." The head page, slightly older and better dressed than the others, was talking to him. He was a boy of about fourteen. "I pray you stand here." He pointed to the center of the tent.
Chris stood, and he felt many hands moving over his body. They quickly removed all his clothes down to his linen undershirt and shorts, and then there were murmurs of concern as they saw his body.
"Have you been sick, squire?" one asked.
"Uh, no. . . ."
"A fever or an illness, to so weaken your body, as we see it now?"
"No," Chris said, frowning.
They began to dress him, saying nothing. First, thick felt leggings, and then a heavily padded long-sleeved undershirt that buttoned at the front. They told him to bend his arms. He could hardly do it, the cloth was so thick.
"It is stiff from washing, but it will soon be easier," one said.
Chris didn't think so. Jesus, he thought, I can hardly move, and they haven't put on the armor yet. Now they were strapping plates of metal on his thighs, calves and knees. Then they continued with his arms. As each piece went on, they asked him to move his limbs, to be sure the straps were not too tight.
Next a coat of chain mail was lowered over his head. It felt heavy on his shoulders. While the breastplate was being tied in place, the head page asked a series of questions, none of which Chris could answer.
"Do you sit high, or in cantle?"
"Will you couch your lance, or rest it?"
"Do you tie-brace the high pommel, or sit free?"
"Set your stirrups low, or forward?"
Chris made noncommittal noises. Meanwhile, more pieces of armor were added, with more questions.
"Flex sabaton or firm?"
"Vambrace guard or side plate?"
"Broadsword left or right?"
"Bascinet beneath your helm, or no?"
He felt increasingly burdened as more weight was added, and increasingly stiff as each joint was encased in metal. The pages worked quickly, and in a matter of minutes he was entirely dressed. They stepped away and surveyed him.
" 'Tis good, squire?"
"It is," he said.
"Now the helm." He was already wearing a kind of metal skullcap, but now they brought over the pointy-snout helmet and placed it over his head. Chris was plunged into darkness, and he felt the helmet's weight on his shoulders. He could see nothing except what was straight ahead, through a horizontal eye slit.
His heart began to pound. There was no air. He couldn't breathe. He tugged at the helmet, trying to lift the visor, but it did not move. He was trapped. He heard his breathing, amplified in the metal. His hot breath warmed the tight confines of the helmet. He was suffocating. There was no air. He grabbed at the helmet, struggling to remove it.
The pages lifted it off his head and looked at him curiously.
"Is all well, squire?"
Chris coughed, and nodded, not trusting himself to speak. He never wanted that thing on his head again. But already they were leading him out of the tent, to a waiting horse.
Jesus Christ, he thought.
This horse was gigantic, and covered in more metal than he was. There was a decorated plate over the head, and more plates on the chest and sides. Even in armor, the animal was jumpy and high-spirited, snorting and jerking at the reins the page held. This was a true warhorse, a destrier, and it was far more spirited than any horse he had ever ridden before. But that was not what concerned him. What concerned him was the size - the damn horse was so big, he couldn't see over it. And the wooden saddle was raised, making it still higher. The pages were all looking at him expectantly. Waiting for him. To do what? Probably to climb up.
"How do I, uh. . . ."
They blinked, surprised. The head page stepped forward and said smoothly, "Place your hand here, squire, on the wood and swing up. . . ."
Chris extended his hand, but he could barely reach the pommel, a rectangle of carved wood in the front of the saddle. He closed his fingers around the wood, then raised his knee and slipped his foot in the stirrup.
"Um. I think your left foot, squire."
Of course. Left foot. He knew that; he was just tense and confused. He kicked the stirrup to get his right foot free. But the armor had caught on the stirrup; he bent forward awkwardly and used his hand to tug the stirrup free. It still was stuck. Finally, at the moment of release, he lost his balance and fell on his back near the horse's rear hooves. The horrified pages quickly dragged him clear.
They got him to his feet, and then they all helped him to mount. He felt hands pressing against his buttocks as he rose shakily into the air, swung his foot over - Jesus, that was hard - and landed with a clank in the saddle.
Chris looked down at the ground, far below. He felt as if he were ten feet in the air. As soon as he was mounted, the horse began to whinny and shake its head, turning sideways and snapping at Hughes's legs in the stirrups. He thought, This damn horse is trying to bite me.
"Reins, squire! Reins! You must rein him!"
Chris tugged at the reins. The enormous horse paid no attention, pulling hard, still trying to bite him.
"Show him, squire! Strongly!"
Chris yanked the reins so sharply, he thought he'd break the animal's neck. At this, the horse merely gave a final snort and faced forward, suddenly calmed.
"Well done, squire."
Trumpets sounded, several long notes.
"That is the first call to arms," the page said. "We must to the tourney field."
They took the horse's reins and led Chris toward the grassy field.
It was one in the morning. From inside his office at ITC, Robert Doniger stared down at the entrance to the cave, illuminated in the night by the flashing lights of six ambulances parked all around. He listened to the crackle of the paramedic radios and watched the people leaving the tunnel. He saw Gordon walking out with that new kid, Stern. Neither of them appeared to have been hurt.
He saw Kramer reflected in the glass of the window as she entered the room behind him. She was slightly out of breath. Without looking back at her, he said, "How many were injured?"
"Six. Two somewhat seriously."
"Shrapnel wounds. Burns from toxic inhalation."
"Then they'll have to go to UH." He meant University Hospital, in Albuquerque.
"Yes," Kramer said. "But I've briefed them about what they can say. Lab accident, all that. And I called Whittle at UH, reminded him of our last donation. I don't think there'll be a problem."
Doniger stared out the window. "There might be," he said.
"The PR people can handle it."
"Maybe not," Doniger said.
In recent years, ITC had built a publicity unit of twenty-six people around the world. Their job was not to get publicity for the company, but rather to deflect it. ITC, they explained to anyone who inquired, was a company that made superconducting quantum devices for magnetometers and medical scanners. These devices consisted of a complex electro-mechanical element about six inches long. Press handouts were stupefyingly boring, dense with quantum specifications.
For the rare reporter who remained interested, ITC enthusiastically scheduled a tour of their New Mexico facility. Reporters were taken to selected research labs. Then, in a large assembly room, they were shown how the devices were made - the gradiometer coils fitted into the cryostat, the superconducting shield and electrical leads outside. Explanations referred to the Maxwell equations and electric charge motion. Almost invariably, reporters abandoned their stories. In the words of one, "It's about as compelling as an assembly line for hair dryers."
In this way, Doniger had managed to keep silent about the most extraordinary scientific discovery of the late twentieth century. In part, his silence was self-preservation: other companies, like IBM and Fujitsu, had started their own quantum research, and even though Doniger had a four-year head start on them, it was in his interest that they not know exactly how far he had gone.
He also was aware that his plan was not yet completed, and he needed secrecy to finish. As he himself often said, grinning like a kid, "If people knew what we were up to, they'd really want to stop us."
But at the same time, Doniger knew that he could not maintain the secrecy forever. Sooner or later, perhaps by accident, it was all going to come out. And when that happened, it was up to him to manage it.
The question in Doniger's mind was whether it was happening now.
He watched as the ambulances pulled out, sirens whining.
"Think about it," he said to Kramer. "Two weeks ago, this company was buttoned down tight. Our only problem was that French reporter. Then we had Traub. That depressed old bastard put our whole company in jeopardy. Traub's death brought that cop from Gallup, who's still nosing around. Then Johnston. Then his four students. And now six techs going to the hospital. It's getting to be a lot of people out there, Diane. A lot of exposure."
"You think it's getting away from us," she said.
"Possibly," he said. "But not if I can help it. Especially since I've got three potential board members coming day after tomorrow. So let's button it back down."
She nodded. "I really think we can handle this."
"Okay," he said, turning away from the window. "See that Stern goes to bed in one of the spare rooms. Make sure he gets sleep, and put a block on the phone. Tomorrow, I want Gordon sticking to him like glue. Give him a tour of the place, whatever. But stay with him. I want a conference call with the PR people tomorrow at eight. I want a briefing about the transit pad at nine. And I want those media dipshits at noon. Call everybody now, so they can get ready."
"Right," she said.
"I may not be able to keep this under control," Doniger said, "but I'm sure as hell going to try."
He frowned at the glass, watching the people clustered outside the tunnel in the dark. "How long until they can go back in the cave?"
"And then we can mount a rescue operation? Send another team back?"
Kramer coughed. "Well . . ."
"Are you sick? Or does that mean no?"
"All the machines were destroyed in the explosion, Bob," she said.
"All of them?"
"I think so, yes."
"Then all we can do is rebuild the pad, and sit on our asses to see if they come back in one piece?"
"Yes. That's right. We have no way to rescue them."
"Then let's hope they know their stuff," Doniger said, "because they're on their own. Good fucking luck to them."
Through the narrow slit of his helmet visor, Chris Hughes could see that the tournament stands were filled - almost entirely with ladies - and the railings crowded with commoners ten deep. Everyone was shouting for the tournament to begin. Chris was now at the east end of the field, surrounded by his pages, trying to control the horse, which seemed upset by the shouting crowd and had begun to buck and rear. The pages tried to hand him a striped lance, which was absurdly long and ungainly in his hand. Chris took it, then fumbled it as the horse snorted and stomped beneath him.
Beyond the barrier, he saw Kate standing among the commoners. She was smiling encouragement at him, but the horse kept twisting and turning, so he could not return her gaze.
And not far off, he saw the armored figure of Marek, surrounded by pages.
As Chris's horse turned again - why didn't the pages grab the reins? - he saw the far end of the field, where Sir Guy de Malegant sat calmly on his mount. He was pulling on his black-plumed helmet.
Chris's horse bucked once more and turned him in circles. He heard more trumpets, and the spectators all looked toward the stands. He was dimly aware that Lord Oliver was taking his seat, to scattered applause.
Then the trumpets blared again.
"Squire, it is your signal," a page said, handing him the lance once more. This time, he managed to hold it long enough to rest it in a notch on his pommel, so that it crossed the horse's back and pointed ahead to his left. Then the horse spun, and the pages yelled and scattered as the lance swung in an arc over their heads.
Hardly able to see, Chris tugged at his reins, trying to get the horse under control. He glimpsed Sir Guy at the far end of the field, just watching, his horse perfectly still. Chris wanted to get it over with, but his horse was wild. Angry and frustrated, he yanked hard at the reins one final time. "Goddamn it, go, will you?"
At this, the horse snapped his head up and down in two swift motions. The ears went flat.
And he charged.
Marek watched the charge tensely. He had not told Chris everything; there was no point in frightening him any more than necessary. But certainly Sir Guy would try to kill Chris, which meant he would aim his lance for the head. Chris was bouncing wildly in the saddle, his lance jerking up and down, his body swaying from side to side. He made a poor target, but if Guy was skilled - and Marek had no doubt that he was - then he would still aim for the head, risking a miss on the first pass in order to make the fatal hit.
He watched Chris jolt down the field, precariously hanging in the saddle. And he watched Sir Guy charging toward him, in perfect control, body leaning forward, lance couched in the crook of the arm.
Well, Marek thought, there was at least a chance that Chris would survive.
Chris could not see much of anything. Lurching wildly in the saddle, he had only blurred views of the stands, the ground, the other rider coming toward him. From his brief glimpses, he could not estimate how far away Guy was, or how long until the impact. He heard the thundering hoofbeats of his horse, the rhythmic snorting breath. He bounced in the saddle and tried to hold on to his lance. Everything was taking much longer than he expected. He felt as if he had been riding this horse for an hour.
At the last moment, he saw Guy very close, rushing up to him at frightful speed, and then his own lance recoiled in his hand, slamming painfully into his right side, and simultaneously he felt a sharp pain in his left shoulder and an impact that twisted him sideways in the saddle, and he heard the crack! of splintering wood.
The crowd roared.
His horse raced onward, to the far end of the field. Chris was dazed. What had happened? His shoulder burned fiercely. His lance had been snapped in two.
And he was still sitting in the saddle.
Marek watched unhappily. It was bad luck; the impact had been too glancing to unseat Chris. Now they would have to charge another time. He glanced over at Sir Guy, who was cursing as he pulled a fresh lance from the hands of the pages, wheeling his horse, preparing to charge again.
At the far end of the field, Chris was again trying to get control of his new lance, which swung wildly in the air like a metronome. At last he brought it down across the saddle, but the horse was still twisting and bucking.
Guy was humiliated and angry. He was impatient, and did not wait. Kicking his spurs, he charged down the field.
You bastard, Marek thought.
The crowd roared in surprise at the one-sided attack. Chris heard it, and saw that Guy was already galloping toward him at full speed. His own horse was still twisting and unruly. He jerked on the reins and at that moment heard a thwack as one of the grooms whipped his horse on the hind-quarters.
The horse whinnied. The ears flattened.
He charged down the field.
The second charge was worse - because this time, he knew what was coming.
The impact slammed him, streaking pain across his chest, as he was lifted bodily up into the air. Everything became slow. He saw the saddle moving away from him, then the horse's rear flanks revealed as he slid away, and then he was tilted back, staring up at sky.
He smashed onto the ground, flat on his back. His head clanged against the helmet. He saw bright blue spots, which spread and grew larger, then became gray. He heard Marek in his ear: "Now stay there!"
Somewhere he heard distant trumpets as the world faded gently, easily into blackness.
At the far end of the course, Guy was wheeling his horse to prepare for another charge, but already the trumpets had sounded for the next pair.
Marek lowered his lance, kicked his horse, and galloped forward. He saw his opposite, Sir Charles de Gaune, racing toward him. He heard the steady rumble of the horse, the building roar of the crowd - they knew this would be good - as he raced forward. This horse was running incredibly fast. Sir Charles charged forward, equally fast.