Map of Bones
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