Hero's Army - Chapter One


CHAPTER ONE - THE PARDONER'S TALE, AGAIN


The church was surprisingly hard to break into.

Not that Henry had much experience with church robberies. Any goliard would tell you that you could mock a priest and you could cheat a bishop, but actually robbing a church was just bending over and begging Dame Fortune to jam a spear up your backside.

So the Outremer priests should have been more trusting. They should have known that no one would try to rob them. Especially not in the Holy Land itself. Jesu and St. John were probably hanging around the old neighborhood at that very moment, keeping an eye on things, so why hadn't these foreign priests left the doors open to late-night worshippers, like real Christians? Why were they making his job harder by locking up the place? Paranoid jerks.

Henry shoved at the postern door. There was not even an inch of give; it was probably bolted from the inside. He looked around. The moon hung on the horizon. The rear courtyard of the Church of the Knights of St. John glowed eerily in the midnight chill; the pale local sandstone seemed to soak up and re-emit the light of stars just a little different from the stars of home. Everyone was in bed.

Sleep, thought Henry. That must be nice.

He walked quietly around the corner of the building. Maybe there was a door on the other side. Past a tiny herb garden, now bare; past a series of arched windows, too small to enter; then around the northwest corner-

There was a second door. It had been smashed open. Maybe by the dead guy who was sprawled across the doorsill.

From inside, Henry heard sounds he knew all too well: the pounding of boots on stone; the grunts and gasps of men who couldn't waste their breath on speech; and finally, the shivering clash of steel on steel.

Holding his breath, he peered around the doorpost and saw just what he expected - a mob of warriors, some in mail, some in breastplates, some in nothing but black Hospitaller tunics, hacking desperately at one another with swords and knives in front of a stone coffin.

Great. Just great.

Waiting until the scrum edged far enough away from the door, he slid into one of the side chapels, stretched out underneath the altar, and took some bread and a piece of crumbly local cheese from his pouch. This stage of affairs would take a while. The real danger, he knew, would come when only one knight was left.

The noise of fighting continued for some time after the bread and cheese were gone. Then there was the sound of men running away. Henry waited a few moments. He could still hear someone walking around, maybe more than one. He crept to the edge of the chapel.

It was two Knights Hospitaller standing over the bodies of half a dozen men-at-arms. They were both bloody and out of breath, leaning against the coffin with the air of men who had finished a difficult job. The first of them clapped his hand on the second's shoulder. The second man nodded.

Henry had some idea of what would happen next. He hoped he was wrong.

The two men smiled at each other. They glanced at the coffin. They hesitated. They looked again, wavered again...and then as one man, they grabbed the stone lid and heaved it off the casket.

Here it comes, thought Henry.

The knights looked into the coffin. One of them reached in – and the other one grabbed his arm. The two argued for a moment in a language Henry didn't recognize. The argument got fiercer. And fiercer.
Then the swords came out. As one man, the knights swung hard, hit each other, and fell to the ground.
Henry shook his head and walked to the casket. Inside was a leathery, shriveled corpse, all that was left of Frederick, Duke of Swabia.

"I'm sorry, Fred," said Henry. "I wish you'd made it. I really, really do."

Next to Frederick was a sword. It had no fancy gold work or precious jewels. Only its graceful lines and the steel of the blade, so flawless it looked like a strip of pure silver, suggested a weapon that was anything but ordinary. Henry sighed and picked it up. The blade felt heavy but easy to move, a fearful engine, perfectly balanced.

It's about time, said Excalibur. What kept you?

"It's a long story..."

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