THE ARCHBISHOP’S men fled into the shadows of the lower valley. Behind them, atop the winter pass, horses screamed, arrow-bit and cleaved. Men shouted, cried, and roared. The clash of steel rang as silvery as a chapel’s bells.
But it was not God’s work being done here.
The rear guard must hold.
Friar Joachim clutched the reins of his horse as his mount slid on its haunches down the steep slope. The loaded wagon had reached the bottom of the valley safely. But true escape still lay another league away.
If only they could reach it…
With his hands clenched on the reins, Joachim urged his stumbling mare down to the valley’s bottom. He splashed across an icy brook and risked a glance behind him.
Though spring beckoned, winter still ruled the heights. The peaks shone brilliantly in the setting sun. Snow reflected the light, while a billow of rime-frost flagged off the peaks’ razored tips. But here in the shadowed gorges, snowmelt had turned the forest floor into a muddy bog. The horses slogged up to their fetlocks and threatened to break a bone with every step. Ahead the wagon was mired just shy of its axles.
Joachim kicked his mare to join the soldiers at the wagon.
Another team of horses had been hitched to the front. Men pushed from behind. They must reach the trail coursing along the next ridgeline.
“Ey-ya!” yelled the wagon master, snapping a whip.
The lead horse threw its head back and then heaved against the yoke. Nothing happened. Chains strained, horses chuffed white into the cold air, and men swore most foully.
Slowly, too slowly, the wagon dragged free of the mud with the sucking sound of an open chest wound. But it was moving again at last. Each delay had cost blood. The dying wailed from the pass behind them.
The rear guard must hold a little longer.
The wagon continued, climbing again. The three large stone sarcophagi in the open wagon bed slid against the ropes that lashed them in place.
If any should break…
Friar Joachim reached the foundering wagon.
His fellow brother, Franz, moved his horse closer. “The trail ahead scouts clear.”
“The relics cannot be taken back to Rome. We must reach the German border.”
Franz nodded, understanding. The relics were no longer safe upon Italian soil, not with the true pope exiled to France and the false pope residing in Rome.
The wagon climbed more quickly now, finding firmer footing with each step. Still, it trundled no faster than a man could walk. Joachim continued watching the far ridge, staring over his mount’s rump.
The sounds of battle had settled to groans and sobbing, echoing eerily across the valley. The ring of swords had died completely, signaling the defeat of the rear guard.
Joachim searched, but heavy shadows steeped the heights. The bower of black pines hid all.
Then Joachim spotted a flash of silver.
A lone figure appeared, limned in a patch of sunlight, armor glinting.
Joachim did not need to see the red dragon sigil painted on the man’s chestplate to recognize the black pope’s lieutenant. The profane Saracen had taken the Christian name Fierabras, after one of Charlemagne’s paladins. He stood a full head taller than all his men. A true giant. More Christian blood stained his hands than any other man’s. But baptized this past year, the Saracen now stood beside Cardinal Octavius, the black pope who took the name Victor IV.
Fierabras stood in the patch of sunlight, making no attempt to chase.
The Saracen knew he was too late.
The wagon crested the ridge at last and reached the rutted, dry trail atop it. They would make good speed now. German soil lay only a league from here. The Saracen’s ambush had failed.
Movement drew Joachim’s attention.
Fierabras drew a great bow from over a shoulder, black as the shadows. He slowly set arrow to string, notched it, and then leaned back and drew a full pull.
Joachim frowned. What did he hope to win with one feathered bolt?
The bow sprang, and the arrow flew, arching over the valley, lost for a moment in the sunlight above the ridgeline. Joachim searched the skies, tense. Then, as silent as a diving falcon, the arrow struck, shattering into the centermost casket.
Impossibly, the sarcophagus’s lid cracked with the sound of a thunderbolt. Ropes broke free as the crate split, scattering open. Loosed now, all three crates slid toward the open rear of the wagon.
Men ran forward, attempting to stop the stone sarcophagi from crashing to the ground. Hands reached. The wagon was halted. Still, one of the crates tilted too far. It toppled and crushed a soldier beneath, breaking leg and pelvis. The poor man’s scream christened the air.
Franz hurried, dropping from his saddle. He joined the men in attempting to lift the stone crate off the soldier…and more importantly back into the wagon.
The sarcophagus was lifted, the man dragged free, but the crate was too heavy to raise to the wagon’s height.
“Ropes!” Franz yelled. “We need ropes!”
One of the bearers slipped. The sarcophagus fell again, on its side. Its stone lid fell open.
The sound of hoofbeats rose behind them. On the trail. Coming fast. Joachim turned, knowing what he’d find. Horses, lathered and shining in the sun, bore down on them. Though a quarter league off, it was plain all the riders were dressed in black. More of the Saracen’s men. It was a second ambush.
Joachim merely sat his horse. There would be no escape.
Franz gasped—not at their predicament, but at the contents of the spilled sarcophagus. Or rather the lack thereof.
“Empty!” the young friar exclaimed. “It’s empty.”
Shock drove Franz back to his feet. He climbed atop the wagon’s bed and stared into the crate shattered by the Saracen’s arrow.
“Nothing again,” Franz said, falling to his knees. “The relics? What ruin is this?” The young friar found Joachim’s eyes and read the lack of surprise. “You knew.”
Joachim stared back at the rushing horses. Their caravan had all been a ruse, a ploy to draw off the black pope’s men. The true courier had left a day ahead, with a mule team, bearing the true relics wrapped in rough-spun cloth and hidden inside a hay bundle.
Joachim turned to stare across the vale at Fierabras. The Saracen might have his blood this day, but the black pope would never have the relics.
JULY 22, 11:46 P.M.
AS MIDNIGHT approached, Jason passed his iPod to Mandy. “Listen. It’s Godsmack’s new single. It’s not even released in the States yet. How cool is that?”