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Marek had read the old texts, but now he suddenly understood them: he felt shivery and loose, weak in his limbs, his thighs trembling as he squeezed his mount. He forced himself to concentrate, to focus, to line up his lance with Sir Charles. But the tip of his lance whipped up and down as he charged. He raised it from the pommel, couched it in the crook of his arm. Steadier. His breathing was better. He felt his strength return. He lined up. Eighty yards now.
He saw Sir Charles adjust his lance, angling it upward. He was going for the head. Or was it a feint? Jousting riders were known to change their aim at the last moment. Would he?
The head strike was risky if both riders were not aiming for it. A straight lance to the torso would impact a fraction of a second sooner than a lance to the head: it was a matter of the angles. The first impact would move both riders, making the head strike less certain. But a skilled knight might extend his lance farther forward, taking it out of couched position, to get six or eight inches of extra length, and thus the first impact. You had to have enormous arm strength to absorb the instant of impact, and control the lance as it socked back, so the horse would bear the brunt; but you were more likely to throw off the opponent's aim and timing.
Sir Charles still held his lance high. But now he couched it, leaning forward in the saddle. He had more control of the lance now. Would he feint again?
There was no way to know. Marek decided to go for the chest strike. He put his lance in position. He would not move it again.
He heard the thunder of hooves, the roar of the crowd. The medieval texts warned, "Do not close your eyes at the moment of impact. Keep your eyes open to make the hit."
His eyes were open.
The bastard raised his lance.
He was going for the head.
The crack of wood sounded like a gunshot. Marek felt a pain in his left shoulder, stabbing upward and hard. He rode on to the end of the course, dropped his shattered lance, extended his hand out for another. But the pages were just staring at the field behind him.
Looking back, he saw that Sir Charles was down, lying on the ground, not moving.
And then he saw Sir Guy prancing and wheeling around Chris's fallen body. That would be his solution, Marek thought. He'd trample Chris to death.
Marek turned and drew his sword. He held it high.
With a howl of rage, Marek spurred his horse down the field.
The crowd screamed and pounded the railings like a drumbeat. Sir Guy turned, and he saw Marek coming. He looked back down at Chris, and kicked his horse, making it move sideways to stomp him.
"Fie! Fie!" the crowd shouted, and even Lord Oliver was on his feet, aghast.
But then Marek had reached Sir Guy, unable to stop his charge but sweeping past him, shouting, "Asshole" as he struck Guy's head with the flat of his sword. He knew it wouldn't hurt him, but it was an insulting blow, and it would make him abandon Chris. Which it did.
Sir Guy immediately turned away from Chris as Marek reined up, holding his sword. Sir Guy pulled his sword from the sheath and swung viciously, the blade whistling in the air. It clanged off Marek's blade. Marek felt his own sword vibrate in his hand with the impact. Marek lashed out in a backswing, going for the head. Guy parried; the horses wheeled; the swords clanged, again and again.
The battle had begun. And in some detached part of his mind, Marek knew that this would be a fight to the death.
Kate watched the battle from the railing. Marek was holding his own, and his physical strength was superior, but it was easy to see that he did not have the expertise of Sir Guy. His swings were wilder, his body position less sure. He seemed to know it, and so did Sir Guy, who kept backing his horse away, trying to open space for full swings. For his part, Marek pressed closer, keeping the distance between them tight, like a fighter staying in the clinch.
But Marek could not do it forever, she saw. Sooner or later, Guy would get enough distance, if only for a moment, and make a lethal blow.
Marek's hair was soaked with sweat inside the helmet. Stinging drops dripped into his eyes. He could do nothing about it. He shook his head, trying to clear his vision. It didn't help much.
Soon he was gasping for breath. Through the slit of the helmet, Sir Guy appeared tireless and implacable, always on the attack, swinging repeatedly in a sure, practiced rhythm. Marek knew that he had to do something soon, before he became too tired. He had to break the knight's rhythm.
His right hand, holding the sword, already burned from constant exertion. His left hand was strong. Why not use his left hand?
It was worth a try.
Spurring his horse, Marek moved closer, until they were chest to chest. He waited until he had blocked one swing with his own sword, and then with the heel of his left hand, he punched upward at Sir Guy's helmet. The helmet snapped back; he felt the satisfying thunk as Guy's head struck the front of the helmet.
Immediately, Marek flipped his sword over and slammed the butt of the handle against Guy's helmet. There was a loud clang, and Guy's body jerked in the saddle. His shoulders slumped momentarily. Marek struck again, banged the helmet harder. He knew he was hurting him.
But not enough.
Too late, he saw Guy's sword hiss in a broad arc, toward his back. Marek felt the brutal sting like a whip across his shoulders. Did the chain mail hold? Was he hurt? He could still move his arms. He swung his own blade hard against the back of Guy's helmet. Guy did nothing to ward off the blow, which rang like a gong. He must be dazed, Marek thought.
Marek swung again, then wheeled his horse, coming around; and he swung broadly for the neck. Guy blocked it, but the force of the impact knocked him backward. Reeling, he slid sideways in the saddle, grabbed for the pommel, but could not prevent his fall to the ground.
Marek turned, started to dismount. The crowd roared again; looking back, he saw that Guy had leapt easily to his feet, his injuries a sham. He swung his blade at Marek while he was still dismounting. Marek, with one foot still raised in the stirrup, parried awkwardly, somehow got clear of his horse, and then swung back. Sir Guy was strong, sure of himself.
Marek realized his situation was now worse than before. He attacked fiercely, but Guy backed up easily, his footwork practiced and quick. Marek was gasping and wheezing inside his helmet; he was sure Guy could hear it, and would know what it meant.
Marek was wearing down.
All Sir Guy had to do was keep backing away, until Marek exhausted himself.
Unless . . .
Off to the left, Chris obediently still lay flat on his back.
Marek swung at Guy, moving to the right with every stroke. Guy continued to move lightly away. But now Marek was driving him back - toward Chris.
Chris awoke slowly to the clang of swords. Groggy, he took stock. He was lying on his back, staring at blue sky. But he was alive. What had happened? He turned his head inside his black helmet. With just a narrow slit for vision, it was hot and stuffy and claustrophobic.
He began to feel sick.
The sensation of nausea built quickly. He didn't want to throw up inside the helmet. It was too tight around his head; he would drown in his own puke. He had to get his helmet off. Still lying there, he reached up and grabbed the helmet with both hands.
He tugged at it.
It didn't budge. Why? Had they tied it on him? Was it because he was lying down?
He was going to throw up. In the damn helmet.
Frantic, he rolled on the ground.
Marek swung his sword desperately. Behind Sir Guy, he saw Chris begin to move. Marek would have shouted to him to stay where he was, but he had no breath to speak.
Marek swung again, and again.
Now Chris was pulling at his helmet, trying to get it off. Guy was still ten yards from Chris. Dancing backward, enjoying himself, parrying Marek's blows easily.
Marek knew he was almost at the limits of his strength now. His swings were increasingly weak. Guy was still strong, still smooth. Just backing and parrying. Waiting for his chance.
Chris had rolled over on his stomach, and he was now getting up. He was on all fours. Hanging his head. Then there was a loud retching sound.
Guy heard it, too, turned his head a little to look -
Marek charged, butted him in the breastplate with his head, and Guy staggered backward, fell over Chris, and went down.
Malegant rolled quickly on the ground, but Marek was on him, stamping on Guy's right hand to pin the sword down, then swinging his other leg over to pin the opposite shoulder. Marek held his sword high, ready to plunge it down.
The crowd fell silent.
Guy did not move.
Slowly, Marek lowered his sword, cut the laces to Guy's helmet, and pushed it back with the tip of his blade. Guy's head was now exposed. Marek saw he was bleeding freely from his left ear.
Guy glared at him, and spat.
Marek raised his sword again. He was filled with rage, stinging sweat, burning arms, vision red with fury and exhaustion. He tightened his hands, prepared to swing down and cut the head from the body.
Guy saw it.
He shouted, so everyone would hear.
"I beg mercy!" he cried. "In the name of the Holy Trinity and the Virgin Mary! Mercy! Mercy!"
The crowd was silent.
Marek was not sure what to do. In the back of his mind, a voice said, Kill this bastard or you will regret it later. He knew that he must decide quickly; the longer he stood here, straddling Sir Guy, the more certain he would lose his nerve.
He looked at the crowd lining the railing. No one moved; they just stared. He looked at the stands, where Lord Oliver sat with the ladies. Everyone was motionless. Lord Oliver seemed frozen. Marek looked back at the cluster of pages standing by the railing. They, too, were frozen. Then, in a move that was almost subliminal, one page raised a hand to midchest and made a flicking wrist motion: cut it off.
He's giving you good advice, Marek thought.
But Marek hesitated. There was absolute silence in the field, except for the retches and groans of Chris. In the end, it was those retches that broke the moment. Marek stepped away from Sir Guy and extended a hand to help him up.
Sir Guy took his hand, got to his feet in front of Marek. He said, "You bastard, I'll see you in Hell," and turned on his heel and walked away.
The little stream wound through mossy grass and wildflowers. Chris was on his knees, plunging his face into the water. He came back sputtering, coughing. He looked at Marek, who was squatting beside him, staring off into space.
"I've had it," Chris said. "I've had it."
"I imagine you have."
"I could have been killed," Chris said. "That's supposed to be a sport? You know what that is? It's a game of chicken on horses. Those people are insane." He dunked his head in the water again.
"I hate to throw up. I hate it."
"What? What is it now? You going to tell me I'll rust my armor? Because I don't give a shit, Andre."
"No," Marek said, "I'm going to tell you your felt undershirt will swell, and it'll be difficult to take the armor off."
"Is that right? Well, I don't care. Those pages will come and get it off me." Chris sat back in the moss and coughed. "Jesus, I can't get rid of that smell. I need to take a bath or something."
Marek sat beside him, said nothing. He just let him unwind. Chris's hands were shaking as he talked. It was better for him to get it out, he thought.
In the field below them, archers in maroon and gray were practicing. Ignoring the excitement of the nearby tournament, they patiently fired at targets, moved backward, fired again. It was just as the old texts said: the English archers were highly disciplined, and they practiced every day.
"Those men are the new military power," Marek said. "They decide battles now. Look at them."
Chris propped himself on his elbow. "You're kidding," he said. The archers were now more than two hundred yards from their circular targets - the length of two football fields. So far away, they were small figures, and yet they were confidently drawing their bows toward the sky. "Are they serious?"
The sky was black with whistling arrows. They struck the targets, or landed close by, sticking up in the grass.
"No kidding," Chris said.
Almost immediately, another thick volley filled the air. And another, and another. Marek was counting to himself. Three seconds between volleys. So it was true, he thought: English archers really could fire twenty rounds a minute. By now, the targets bristled with arrows.
"Charging knights can't stand up under that kind of attack," Marek said. "It kills the riders, and it kills the horses. That's why the English knights dismount to fight. The French still charge in the traditional way - and they're just slaughtered, before they ever get close to the English. Four thousand knights dead at Crecy, even more in Poitiers. Large numbers for this time."
"Why don't the French change tactics? Can't they see what's happening?"
"They do, but it means the end of a whole way of life - a whole culture, really," Marek said. "Knights are all nobility; their way of life is too expensive for commoners. A knight has to buy his armor and at least three war-horses, and he has to support his retinue of pages and aides. And these noble knights have been the determining factor in warfare, until now. Now it's over." He pointed to the archers in the field. "Those men are commoners. They win by coordination and discipline. There's no personal valor. They're paid a wage; they do a job. But they're the future of warfare - paid, disciplined, faceless troops. The knights are finished."
"Except for tournaments," Chris said sourly.
"Pretty much. And even there - all that plate armor, over the chain mail - that's all because of arrows. Arrows will go clean through an unprotected man, and they'll penetrate chain mail. So knights need plate armor. Horses need armor. But with a volley like that . . ." Marek pointed to the whistling rainfall of arrows and shrugged. "It's over."
Chris looked back at the tournament grounds. And then he said, "Well, it's about time!"
Marek turned and saw five liveried pages walking toward them, along with two guards in red-and-black surcoats. "Finally I'm going to get out of this damned metal."
Chris and Marek stood as the men came up. One of the guards said, "You have broken the rules of tourney, disgraced the chivalrous knight Guy Malegant, and the good offices of Lord Oliver. You are made arrest, and will come with us."
"Wait a minute," Chris said. "We disgraced him?"
"You will come with us."
"Wait a minute," Chris said.
The soldier cuffed him hard on the side of the head, and pushed him forward. Marek fell into step beside him. Surrounded by guards, they headed toward the castle.
Kate was still at the tournament, looking for Chris and Andre. At first, she thought to look in the tents ranged beyond the field, but there were only men - knights and squires and pages - in that area, and she decided against it. This was a different world, violence was in the air, and she felt a constant sense of risk. Nearly everyone in this world was young; the knights who swaggered about the field were in their twenties or early thirties, and the squires mere teenagers. She was dressed in ordinary fashion, and clearly not a member of the nobility. She had the feeling that if she were dragged off and raped, no one would take much notice.
Even though it was midday, she found herself behaving the way she did in New Haven at night. She tried never to be alone, but to move with a group; she skirted around the clusters of males, giving them wide berth.
She made her way behind the bleachers, hearing the cheers of the crowd as the next pair of knights began to fight. She looked into the area of tents to her left. She did not see Marek or Chris anywhere. Yet they had left the field only minutes before. Were they inside one of the tents? She had heard nothing in her earpiece for the last hour; she assumed it was because Marek and Chris had worn helmets, which blocked transmission. But surely their helmets were off now.
Then she saw them, a short distance down the hill, sitting by a meandering stream.
She headed down the hill. Her wig was hot and itchy in the sun. Perhaps she could get rid of the wig and just put her hair up under a cap. Or if she cut her hair a little shorter, she could pass for a young man, even without a cap.
It might be interesting, she thought, to be a man for a while.
She was thinking about where to get scissors when she saw the soldiers approaching Marek. She slowed her pace. She still heard nothing in her earpiece, but she was so close, she knew she should.
Was it turned off? She tapped her ear.
Immediately, she heard Chris say, "We disgraced him?" and then something garbled. She saw the soldiers push Chris toward the castle. Marek walked alongside him.
Kate waited a moment, then followed.
Castelgard was deserted, shops and storefronts locked, its streets echoing and empty. Everyone had gone to the tournament, which made it more difficult for her to follow Marek and Chris and the soldiers. She had to drop farther back, waiting until they had gone out of a street before she could follow them, hurrying ahead at a near run until she caught sight of them again, then duck back around a corner.
She knew her behavior looked suspicious. But there was no one to see it. High in one window, she saw an old woman sitting in the sun, eyes closed. But she never looked down. Perhaps she was asleep.
She came to the open field in front of the castle. It, too, was now deserted. The knights on prancing horses, the mock combats, the flying banners were all gone. The soldiers crossed the drawbridge. As she followed after them, she heard the crowd roar from the field beyond the walls. The guards turned and shouted to soldiers on the ramparts, asking what was happening. The soldiers above could see down to the field; they shouted answers. All this was accompanied by much swearing; apparently, bets had been made.
In all the excitement, she walked through, into the castle.
She stood in the small courtyard known as the outer bailey. She saw horses there, tied to a post and unattended. But there were no soldiers in the bailey; everyone was up in the ramparts, watching the tournament.
She looked around for Marek and Chris but did not see them. Not knowing what else to do, she went through the door to the great hall. She heard footsteps echoing in the spiral staircase to her left.
She started up the stairs, going round and round, but the footsteps diminished.
They must have gone down, not up.
Quickly, she retraced her steps. The stairs spiraled downward, ending in a low-ceilinged stone passage, damp and moldy, with cells along one side. The cell doors were open; no one inside. Somewhere ahead, beyond a bend in the corridor, she heard echoing voices, and the clang of metal.
She moved cautiously forward. She must be beneath the great hall, she thought. In her mind she tried to reconstruct the area, from her memory of the ruined castle she had explored so carefully a few weeks earlier. But she did not remember ever seeing this passageway. Perhaps it had collapsed centuries before.
Another metal clang, and echoing laughter.
It took her a moment to realize they were coming toward her.
Marek fell back into soggy, rotting straw, slippery and stinking. Chris tumbled down alongside him, sliding on the mush. The cell door clanged shut. They were at the end of a corridor, with cells on all three sides. Through the bars, Marek saw the guards leaving, laughing as they went. One said, "Hey, Paolo, where do you think you are going? You stay here and guard them."
"Why? They are not going anywhere. I want to see the tourney."
"It is your watch. Oliver wants them guarded."
There was some protesting and swearing. More laughing, and footsteps going away. Then one heavyset guard came back, peered in through the bars at them, and swore. He wasn't happy; they were the reason he was missing the show. He spat on the floor of their cell, then walked a short distance away, to a wooden stool. Marek could not see him anymore, but he saw his shadow on the opposite wall.
It looked as though he was picking his teeth.
Marek walked up to the bars, trying to see into the other cells. He could not really see into the cell to the right, but directly across from them he saw a figure back against the wall, seated in the darkness.
As his eyes adjusted, he saw it was the Professor.
Stern sat in the private dining room of ITC. It was a small room with a single table, white tablecloth, set for four. Gordon sat opposite him, eating hungrily, scrambled eggs and bacon. Stern watched the top of Gordon's crew-cut head bob up and down as he scooped the eggs with his fork. The man ate fast.
Outside, the sun was already climbing in the sky, above the mesas to the east. Stern glanced at his watch; it was six o'clock in the morning. The ITC technicians were releasing another weather balloon from the parking lot; he remembered that Gordon had told them they did it every hour. The balloon rose quickly into the sky, then disappeared into high clouds. The men who had released it didn't bother to watch it go, but walked back to a nearby laboratory building.
"How's your French toast?" Gordon said, looking up. "Rather have something else?"
"No, it's good," Stern said. "I'm just not very hungry."
"Take some advice from an old military man," Gordon said. "Always eat at a meal. Because you never know when your next one will be."
"I'm sure that's right," Stern said. "I'm just not hungry."
Gordon shrugged and resumed eating.
A man in a starched waiter's jacket came into the room. Gordon said, "Oh, Harold. Do you have coffee ready?"
The man in the jacket said, "I do, sir. Cappuccino if you prefer."
"I'll have it black."
"How about you, David?" Gordon said. "Coffee?"
"Nonfat latte, if you have it," Stern said.
"Certainly, sir." Harold went away.
Stern stared out the window. He listened to Gordon eat, listened to his fork scrape across the plate. Finally, he said, "Let me see if I understand this. At the moment, they can't come back, is that right?"
"Because there is no landing site."
"Because debris blocks it."
"And how long until they can come back?"
Gordon sighed. He pushed away from the table. "It's going to be all right, David," he said. "Things are going to turn out fine."
"Just tell me. How long?"
"Well, let's count it off. Another three hours to clear the air in the cave. Add an hour for good measure. Four hours. Then two hours to clear the debris. Six hours. Then you have to rebuild the water shields."
"Rebuild the water shields?" Stern said.
"The three rings of water. They're absolutely essential."
"To minimize transcription errors."
Stern said, "And what exactly are transcription errors?"
"Errors on the rebuild. When the person is reconstructed by the machine."
"You told me there weren't any errors. That you could rebuild exactly."
"For all intents and purposes, we can, yes. As long as we're shielded."
"And if we're not shielded?"
Gordon sighed. "But we will be shielded, David." He glanced at his watch. "I wish you'd stop worrying. There's several hours more before we can fix the transit site. You're upsetting yourself needlessly."
"It's just that I keep thinking," Stern said, "that there must be something we can do. Send a message, make some kind of contact. . . ."
Gordon shook his head. "No. No message, no contact. It's just not possible. For the moment, they're entirely cut off from us. And there's not a thing we can do about it."
Kate Erickson flattened herself against the wall, feeling damp stone on her back. She had ducked inside one of the cells in the corridor, and now she waited, holding her breath, while the guards who had locked up Marek and Chris walked back past her. The guards were laughing, and they seemed in good humor. She heard one of them say, "Sir Oliver was sore displeased with that Hainauter, to make a fool of his lieutenant."
"And the other one was worse! He rides like a flopping rag, and yet he breaks two lances with Tte Noire!" General laughter.
"Sooth, he made a fool of Tte Noire. For that, Lord Oliver will take their heads before nightfall."
"Else I miss my guess, he will chop their heads before supper."
"No, after. The crowd will be larger." More laughter.
They moved down the corridor, their voices fading. Soon she could hardly hear them. Now there was a short silence - had they started back up the stairs? No, not yet. She heard them laughing once again. And the laughter continued. It had an odd, forced quality.
Something was wrong.
She listened intently. They were saying something about Sir Guy and Lady Claire. She couldn't really make it out. She heard ". . . much vexed by our Lady . . ." and more laughter.
Their voices were no longer quite so faint.
Not good. They were coming back.
Why? she thought. What happened?
She glanced toward the door. And there, on the stone floor, she saw her own wet footprints, going into the cell.
Her shoes had been soaked from the grass near the stream. So had the shoes of everyone else, and the center of the stone corridor was a wet, muddy track of many footprints. But one set of footprints veered off, toward her cell.
And somehow they had noticed.
A voice: "When does the tourney draw closed?"
"By high nones."
"Faith, then it is nigh finished."
"Lord Oliver will haste to sup, and prepare for the Archpriest."
She listened, trying to count the different voices. How many guards had there been? She tried to remember. At least three. Maybe five. She hadn't paid attention at the time.
"They say the Archpriest brings a thousand men-at-arms. . . ."
A shadow crossed the floor, outside her door. That meant they were now on both sides of the cell door.
What could she do? All she knew was that she couldn't let herself be captured. She was a woman; she had no business here; they would rape her and kill her.
But, she reflected, they didn't know she was a woman. Not yet. There was silence outside the door, then a scuffling of feet. What would they do next? Probably send one man into the cell while the others waited outside. And meanwhile the others would get set, draw their swords, and raise them high -
She couldn't wait. Crouching low, she bolted.
She banged into a guard as he came through the door, hitting him at knee level from the side, and with a howl of pain and surprise, he fell backward. There were shouts from the other guards, but then she was through the door, a sword clanged down against stone behind her, spitting sparks, and she was running up the corridor.
"A woman! A woman!"
They ran after her.
She was in the spiral staircase now, going up fast. From somewhere below, she heard the clank of their armor as they started up after her. But then she had reached the ground floor, and without thinking, she did the immediate thing: she ran straight into the great hall.
It was deserted, the tables set for a feast, the food not yet laid out. She ran past the tables, looking for a place to hide. Behind the tapestries? No, they were flat to the wall. Under the tablecloths? No, they would look there and find her. Where? Where? She saw the huge fireplace, the fire still burning high. Wasn't there a secret passage out of the dining room? Was that passage here in Castelgard, or was it in La Roque? She couldn't remember. She should have paid more attention.
In her mind's eye she saw herself, wearing khaki shorts and a Polo T-shirt and Nike sneakers, moving lazily through the ruins, taking notes on her pad. Her concerns - to the extent she'd had any at all - had been to satisfy her scholarly peers.
She should have paid more attention!
She heard the men approaching. There was no more time. She ran toward the nine-foot-high fireplace and stepped behind the huge gilded circular screen. The fire was blazing hot, waves of heat radiating against her body. She heard the men coming into the room, shouting, running, looking. She crouched behind the screen, held her breath and waited.
She heard kicking and banging, the clatter of dishes on tables as they searched. She could not make out their voices clearly; they merged with the roar of the flames behind her. There was a metal clang as something fell over; it sounded like a torch stand, something big.
One man barked a question, and she heard no reply. Another shouted a question, and this time she heard a soft answer. It didn't sound like a man. Who were they talking to? It sounded like a woman. Kate listened: Yes, it was a woman's voice. She was sure of it.
Another exchange, and then the sound of clanking armor as the men ran from the room. Peering around the edge of the gilded screen, she saw them vanish through the doorway.
She waited a moment, then stepped from behind the screen.
She saw a young girl of ten or eleven. She wore a white cloth that wrapped over her head, so only her face showed. She had a loose sort of dress, rose-colored, that came almost to the floor. She carried a gold pitcher, and was pouring water into goblets at the tables.
The girl met her eyes and just stared.
Kate waited for her to cry out, but she did not. She just stared curiously at Kate for a moment and then said, "They went upstairs."
Kate turned and ran.
Inside the cell, Marek heard the blare of trumpets, and the distant roar of the tournament crowds, drifting in from one of the high windows. The guard looked up unhappily, swore at Marek and the Professor, and then walked back to his stool.
The Professor said quietly, "Do you still have a marker?"
"Yes," Marek said. "I do. Do you have yours?"
"No, I lost it. About three minutes after I got here."
The Professor had landed, he said, in the forested flatlands near the monastery and the river. ITC had assured him this would be a deserted spot, but ideally situated. Without going far from the machine, he could see all the principal sites of his dig.
What happened was pure bad luck: the Professor landed just as a party of woodcutters was heading into the forest to work for the day, their axes over their shoulders.
"They saw the flashes of light, and then they saw me, and they all fell to their knees, praying. They thought they had seen a miracle. Then they decided they hadn't, and the axes came off their shoulders," the Professor said. "I thought they were going to kill me, but fortunately I knew Occitan. I convinced them to take me to the monastery. Let the monks settle it."
The monks took him away from the woodcutters, stripped him, and searched his body for stigmata. "They were looking in rather unusual places," the Professor said. "That's when I demanded to see the Abbot. The Abbot wanted to know the location of the passage in La Roque. I suspect he's promised it to Arnaut. Anyway, I suggested it might be in the monastic documents." The Professor grinned. "I was willing to go through his parchments for him."
"And I think I have found it."
"I think so. It follows an underground river, so it is probably quite extensive. It starts in a place called the green chapel. And there is a key to finding the entrance."
The guard snarled something, and Marek broke off speaking for a moment. Chris got up, brushing the damp off his hose. He said, "We have to get out of here. Where is Kate?"
Marek shook his head. Kate was still free, unless the shouts from the guards he'd heard down the hallway meant that she'd been captured. But he didn't think they'd caught her. So if he could make contact with her, she might be able to help get them out.
That meant somehow overpowering the guard. The problem was that there were at least twenty yards from the bend in the corridor to where the guard was sitting on his stool. There was no way to take him by surprise. But if Kate was within range of their earpieces, then he could -
Chris was banging on the bars of the cell and shouting, "Hey! Guard! Hey, you!"
Before Marek could speak, the guard stepped into view, looking curiously at Chris, who had reached one hand through the bars and was beckoning him. "Hey, come here! Hey! Over here!"
The guard walked up to him, swatted Chris's hand, which extended through the bar, and then broke into a sudden fit of coughing as Chris sprayed him with the gas canister. The guard wobbled on his feet. Chris reached through the bars again, grabbed the guard by the collar, and sprayed a second time right in his face.
The guard's eyes rolled up in his head, and he dropped like a rock. Still holding on, Chris's arm banged against the crossbars; he yelled in pain, then released the guard, who fell away from the bars and collapsed in the middle of the floor.
Far out of reach.
"Nice work," Marek said. "What's next?"
"You know, you might help me," Chris said. "You're very negative." He was down on his knees, reaching through the bars to his armpit, his hand grasping outside. His outstretched fingers could almost reach the guard's foot. Almost, but not quite. Six inches from the sole of his foot. Chris stretched, grunting. "If we just had something - a stick, or a hook - something to pull him. . . ."
"It won't do any good," the Professor said from the other cell.
He came forward into the light and looked through the bars. "Because he doesn't have the key."
"Doesn't have the key? Where is it?"
"Hanging on the wall," Johnston said, pointing down the corridor.
"Oh shit," Chris said.
On the floor, the guard's hand twitched. One leg kicked spasmodically. He was waking up.
Panicked, Chris said, "What do we do now?"
Marek said, "Kate, are you there?"
"Just down the corridor. I came back because I figured they'd never look for me here."
"Kate," Marek said, "come here. Quickly."
Marek heard her footsteps as she ran toward them.
The guard coughed, rolled onto his back, then propped himself up on one elbow. He looked down the corridor and hastily began to get to his feet.
He was on his hands and knees when Kate kicked him, snapping his head back, and he fell onto the floor again. But he wasn't unconscious, only dazed. He started to get up, shaking his head to clear it.
"Kate," Marek said, "the keys. . . ."
"On the wall."
She backed away from the guard, got the keys on a heavy ring, and brought them to Marek's cell. She put one key in the lock and tried to turn it, but it didn't turn.
With a grunt, the guard threw himself at her, knocking her away from the cell, into the center of the room. They grappled, rolling on the floor. She was much smaller than he was. He held her down easily.
Marek was reaching through the bars with both hands, pulling the key out of the lock, trying another. It didn't fit, either.
Now the guard was straddling Kate, both hands around her neck, strangling her.
Marek tried another key. No luck. There were six more keys on the ring.
Kate was turning blue. She made rasping, choking sounds. She pounded her fists on the guard's arms, but her blows were ineffectual. She punched at his groin, but his surcoat protected him.
Marek shouted, "Knife! Knife!" but she didn't seem to understand. Marek tried another key. Still no success. From the opposite cell, Johnston yelled something in French to the guard.
The guard looked up and snarled a reply, and in that moment Kate brought her dagger out and slammed it into the guard's shoulder with all her strength. The blade didn't penetrate the chain mail. She tried again, and again. Furious, the guard began to pound her head against the stone floor to make her drop the knife.
Marek tried another key.
It turned with a loud creak.
The Professor was shouting, Chris was shouting, and Marek flung the door open. The guard turned to face him, getting to his feet, releasing Kate. Coughing, she swung the knife at his unprotected legs, and he yelled in pain. Marek hit him twice in the head, very hard. The guard fell on the floor, not moving.
Chris unlocked the door for the Professor. Kate got to her feet, color slowly returning to her face.
Marek had pulled out the white wafer and had his thumb on the button. "Okay. We're finally all together." He was looking at the space between the cells. "Is this big enough? Can we call the machine right here?"
"No," Chris said. "It has to be six feet on each side, remember?"
"We need a bigger space." The Professor turned to Kate. "You know how to get out of here?"
She nodded. They started down the corridor.
She led them quickly up the first flight of spiral stairs, feeling a new confidence. The fight with the guard had somehow freed her; the worst had happened, and she had survived. Now, even though her head was throbbing, she felt calmer and clearer than before. And her research had all come back to her: she could remember where the passages were.
They came to the ground floor and looked out into the courtyard. It was even busier than she had expected. There were many soldiers, as well as knights in armor and courtiers in fine clothes, all returning from the tournament. She guessed it was about three in the afternoon; the courtyard was bathed in afternoon light, but shadows had begun to lengthen.
"We can't go out there," Marek said, shaking his head.
"Don't worry." She led them upstairs to the second floor, then quickly down a stone passageway with doors opening to the inside, windows on the outer side. She knew that behind the doors were a series of small apartments for family or guests.
Behind her, Chris said, "I've been here." He pointed to one of the doors. "Claire is in that room there."
Marek snorted. Kate continued on. At the far end of the corridor, a tapestry covered the left wall. She lifted the tapestry - it was surprisingly heavy - and then began to move along the wall, pressing the stones. "I'm pretty sure it's here," she said.
"Pretty sure?" Chris said.
"The passage to take us to the rear courtyard."
She reached the end of the wall. She didn't find a door. And she had to admit, looking back along the wall, that it didn't appear as if there was a doorway anywhere in this wall. The stones were smoothly and evenly mortared. The wall was flat, with no bulges or indentations. There was no sign of any additional or recent work. When she put her cheek against the wall and squinted along the length, it seemed all of a piece.
Was she wrong?
Was this the wrong place?
She couldn't be wrong. The door was here somewhere. She went back, pressing again. Nothing. When she finally discovered it, it was by pure accident. They heard voices from the other end of the corridor - voices coming up the stairwell. When she turned to look, her foot scraped against the stone at the base of the wall.
She felt the stone move.
With a soft metallic clink, a door appeared directly in front of her. It only opened a few inches. But she could see that the masonry had concealed the crack with cunning skill.
She pushed the door open. They all went through. Marek came last, dropping the tapestry as he closed the door.
They were in a dark, narrow passageway. Small holes in the wall every few yards allowed faint light to enter, so torches were not necessary.
When she had first mapped this passage, among the ruins of Castelgard, Kate had wondered why it existed. It seemed to make no sense. But now that she was here, she immediately understood its purpose.
This wasn't a passage to get from one place to another. It was a secret corridor to spy into the apartments on the second floor.
They moved forward quietly. From the adjacent room, Kate heard voices: a woman's and a man's. As they came to the small holes, they all paused, peered through.
She heard Chris give a sigh that was almost a groan.
At first, Chris saw only a man and woman silhouetted against a bright window. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the glare. Then he realized that it was Lady Claire and Sir Guy. They were holding hands, touching each other intimately. Sir Guy kissed her passionately, and she returned his kiss with equal fervor, her arms around his neck.
Chris just stared.
Now the lovers broke, and Sir Guy was speaking to her as she stared intently into his eyes. "My Lady," he was saying, "your public manner and sharp discourtesy provoke many to laugh behind my back, and talk of my unmanliness, that I should tolerate such abuse."
"It must be so," she said. "For both our sakes. This you know full well."
"Yet I would you were not quite so strong in your manner."
"Oh so? And how, then? Would you chance the fortune we both desire? There is other talk, good knight, as you know full well. So long as I oppose marriage, I share those suspicions that many harbor: that you had a black hand in my husband's death. Yet if Lord Oliver forces this marriage upon me, despite all my efforts, then no one can complain of my regard. 'Tis true?"
" 'Tis true," he said, nodding unhappily.
"Yet how different is the circumstance, if I show you favor now," she said. "The same tongues that wag will soon whisper that I too was party to my husband's untimely end, and such tales will quickly reach my husband's family in England. Already, they are of a mind to retake his estates. They lack only the excuse to act. Thus Sir Daniel keeps a watchful eye upon all I do. Good knight, my woman's reputation is easily defiled, never to make repair. Our sole safety lies in my unbending hostility toward you, so I pray you tolerate what slurs may vex you now, and think instead upon your coming reward."
Chris's jaw dropped open. She was behaving with exactly the same intense intimacy - the warm glance, the low voice, the soft caresses on the neck - that she had used with him. Chris had taken it to mean he had seduced her. Now it was clear that she had seduced him.
Sir Guy was sulky, despite her caress. "And your visits to the monastery? I would you visit there no more."
"How so? Are you jealous against the Abbot, my Lord?" she teased him.
"I say only, I would have you visit there no more," he said stubbornly.
"And yet my purpose was strong, for whoever knows the secret of La Roque commands Lord Oliver. He must do as he is asked to gain the secret."
"God's truth, Lady, yet you did not learn the secret," Sir Guy said. "Does the Abbot know it?"
"I did not see the Abbot," she said. "He was abroad."
"And the Magister claims to know not."
" 'Tis so, he claims. Yet I will ask the Abbot again, perhaps tomorrow."
There was a knock on the door, and a muffled male voice. They both turned to look. "That must be Sir Daniel," he said.
"Quick my Lord, to your secret place."
Sir Guy moved hastily toward the wall where they were hidden, pulled aside a tapestry, and then, as they watched in horror, he opened a door - and stepped into the narrow corridor alongside them. Sir Guy stared for a moment, and then he began to shout, "The prisoners! All escaped! Prisoners!"
This cry was taken up by the Lady Claire, who called out in the hallway.
In the passage, the Professor turned to them. "If we're separated, you go to the monastery. Find Brother Marcel. He has the key to the passage. Okay?"
Before any of them could answer, the soldiers came running into the passageway. Chris felt hands grab his arms, pull him roughly.
They were caught.
A solitary lute played in the great hall while servants finished setting out the tables. Lord Oliver and Sir Robert held the hands of their mistresses, danced as the dancing master clapped time, and smiled enthusiastically. After several steps, when Lord Oliver turned to face his partner, he found that her back was turned to him; Oliver swore.
"A trifle, my Lord," the dancing master said hastily, his smile unwavering. "As your Lordship recalls, it is forward-back, forward-back, turn, back, and turn, back. We missed a turn."
"I missed no turn," Oliver said.
"In deed, my Lord, you did not," Sir Robert said at once. "It was a phrase in the music which caused the confusion." He glared at the boy playing the lute.
"Very well, then." Oliver resumed his position, held out his hand to the girl. "What is it then?" he said. "Forward-back, forward-back, turn, back. . . ."
"Very good," the dancing master said, smiling and clapping the beat. "That's it, you have it now. . . ."
From the door, a voice: "My Lord."
The music stopped. Lord Oliver turned irritably, saw Sir Guy with guards, surrounding the Professor and several others. "What is it now?"
"My Lord, it appears the Magister has companions."
"Eh? What companions?"
Lord Oliver came forward. He saw the Hainauter, the foolish Irisher who could not ride, and a young woman, short and defiant-looking. "What companions are these?"
"My Lord, they claim they are the Magister's assistants."
"Assistants?" Oliver raised an eyebrow, looking at the group. "My dear Magister, when you said you had assistants, I did not realize they were here in the castle with you."
"I was not aware myself," the Professor said.
Lord Oliver snorted. "You cannot be assistants." He looked from one to the other. "You are too old by ten year. And you gave no sign you knew the Magister, earlier in the day. . . . You are not speaking sooth. None of you." He shook his head, turned to Sir Guy. "I do not believe them, and I will have the truth. But not now. Take them to the dungeon."
"My Lord, they were in the dungeon when they got free."
"They got free? How?" Immediately, he raised his hand to interrupt the reply. "What is our most secure place?"
Robert de Kere slipped forward and whispered.
"My tower chamber? Where I keep Mistress Alice?" Oliver began to laugh. "It is indeed secure. Yes, lock them there."
Sir Guy said, "I will see to it, my Lord."
"These 'assistants' will be surety to their master's good conduct." He smiled darkly. "I believe, Magister, you will yet learn to dance with me."
The three young people were dragged roughly away. Lord Oliver waved his hand, and the lutist and the dancing master departed with a silent bow. So did the women. Sir Robert lingered, but after a sharp glance from Oliver, he too left the room.
Now there were only servants, setting the tables. Otherwise, the room was silent.
"So, Magister, what game is this?"
"As God is my witness, they are my assistants, as I have told you from the start," the Professor said.
"Assistants? One is a knight."
"He owes me a boon, and so he serves me."
"Oh? What boon?"
"I saved his father's life."
"In deed?" Oliver walked around the Professor. "Saved it how?"
"From what did he suffer?"
The Professor touched his ear and said, "My Lord Oliver, if you wish to assure yourself, bring back the knight Marek at once, and he will say to you what I say now, that I saved his father, who was ill with dropsy, with the herb arnica, and that this happened in Hampstead, a hamlet near to London, in the autumn of the year past. Call him back and ask him."
He stared at the Professor.
The moment was broken by a man in a costume streaked with white powder, who said from a far door, "My Lord."
Oliver whirled. "What is it now?"
"My Lord, a subtlety."
"A subtlety? Very well - but be quick."
"My Lord," the man said, bowing and simultaneously flicking his fingers. Two young boys raced forward with a tray on their shoulders.
"My Lord, the first subtlety - haslet."
The tray showed pale coils of intestines and an animal's large testicles and penis. Oliver walked around the tray, peering closely.
"The innards of the boar, brought back from the hunt," he said, nodding. "Quite convincing." He turned to the Professor. "You approve the work of my kitchen?"
"I do, my Lord. Your subtlety is both traditional and well executed. The testicles are particularly well made."
"Thank you, sir," the chef said, bowing. "They are heated sugar and prunes, if it please. And the intestines are strung fruit covered with a batter of egg and ale, and then honey."
"Good, good," Oliver said. "You will serve this before the second course?"
"I will, Lord Oliver."
"And what of the other subtlety?"
"Marchepane, my Lord, colored with dandelion and saffron." The chef bowed and gestured, and more boys came running with another platter. This held an enormous model of the fortress of Castelgard, its battlements five feet high, all done in pale yellow, matching the actual stones. The confection was accurate down to small details, and included tiny flags from the sugary battlements.
"Elegant! Well done!" Oliver cried. He clapped his hands with pleasure, delighted as a young child for the moment. "I am most pleased."
He turned to the Professor and gestured to the model. "You know the villain Arnaut lies fast upon our castle, and I must defend against him?"
Johnston nodded. "I do."
"How do you advise me to arrange my forces in Castelgard?"
"My Lord," Johnston said, "I would not defend Castelgard at all."
"Oh? Why say you that?" Oliver went to the nearest table, took a goblet, and poured wine.
"How many soldiers did you require to take it from the Gascons?" Johnston asked.
"Fifty or sixty, no more."
"Then you are answered."
"But we made no frontal attack. We used stealth. Craft."
"And the Archpriest will not?"
"He may try, but we shall be waiting. We shall be prepared for his attack."
"Perhaps," Johnston said, turning. "And perhaps not."
"So you are a cunning-man. . . ."
"No, my Lord: I do not see the future. I have no such abilities at all. I merely give you my advice as a man. And I say, the Archpriest will be no less stealthy than you."
Oliver frowned, drank in sullen silence for a while. Then he seemed to notice the chef, the boys holding the tray, all of them standing silent, and waved them away. As they departed, he said, "Take good care of that subtlety! I wish nothing to happen to it before the guests see it." In a few moments, they were alone again. He turned to Johnston, gestured to the tapestries. "Or to this castle."
"My Lord," Johnston said, "you have no need to defend this castle when you have another so much better."
"Eh? You speak of La Roque? But La Roque has a weakness. There is a passage that I cannot find."
"And how do you know the passage exists?"
"It must exist," Oliver said, "because old Laon was architect of La Roque. You know of Laon? No? He was the Abbot of the monastery before the present Abbot. That old bishop was crafty, and whenever he was called upon to give assistance rebuilding a town, or a castle, or a church, he left behind some secret known only to him. Every castle had an unknown passage, or an unknown weakness, which Laon could sell to an attacker, if need arose. Old Laon had a sharp eye for the interest of Mother Church - and a much sharper eye for himself."
"And yet," Johnston said, "if no one knows where this passage is, it might as well not exist. There are other considerations, my Lord. What is your present complement of soldiers here?"
"Two hundred and twenty men-at-arms, two hundred fifty bowsmen, and two hundred pikemen."
"Arnaut has twice as many," Johnston said. "Perhaps more."
"Think you so?"
"In deed he is no better than a common thief, but now he is a famous thief, for marching on Avignon, requiring the Pontiff to dine with his men and then pay ten thousand livres to leave the town intact."