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Chapter 88

Nobody challenged sixty fully armored knights riding through the dark. They crossed the Brenta and the Piave bridges without opposition. Now, as the sky was turning gray with the dawn, they only had the last league or so to go.

"We might be ahead, you know," said Erik. "They landed at Mestre. We saved a fair distance by going around by sea to Chioggia."

"Hmm," said Manfred. "As long as they didn't meet up with Francesca."

"No point in worrying about that," said Erik. "More immediate is the problem of how to stop the forts from opening fire on us. Or what to do if we see Ursula and her escort."

Manfred snorted. "She has twenty-five Knights and a bunch of Servants of the Holy Trinity. We have sixty. We ride the bastards down."

Erik was tired and irritable. It had been a long night. "She'll have picked up an escort, probably from the Scaligers. Possibly arquebusiers. Think, Manfred. And this casket—how do you think she plans to use it?"

Lopez, who had been riding beside them as if he'd been born in the saddle—quite unlike his two companions—turned slightly and answered. "She and the Servants will probably abandon their escort, and head for the fort posing as distressed holy pilgrims. The fort will let them in, particularly when they see one is a woman and there are only five of them. Then I imagine they will release the Woden from the casket. They alone will be protected. When everyone is dead—or flees, which most of them will—the troops will come up and turn the cannon in this fort on the other. And then the enemy will sail through to attack Venice."

Erik nodded. "That's what I'd do, I suppose, if that monster in the casket is so powerful. And what would you do about meeting the Knights and the escort?"

"It would depend on the terrain and the light," answered Lopez. "Arquebuses are inaccurate at the best of times and pretty useless at night." He eyed the large prince. "Or was the question aimed at you?"

Manfred sighed. "Erik's trying to get me to say a double feint or something, Senor Lopez. And then he'll say 'no, keep it simple, stupid. Always flank them.' He's a blasted teacher born."

There was a flash of teeth in the half-dark from the Basque. "A good one too, then. Simplicity is usually best—in war as in all things."

Their guide rode up. "There's a party of soldiers ahead. A barricade. Look like mercenary arquebusiers."

"Can we go around?"

The guide looked at the heavily armored Knights; shook his head. "Too swampy."

"They're not Venetians, are they?" asked Erik.

The guide shook his head again. "Scaliger colors." Erik was not surprised by the answer. The Scaligers were the ruling family of Verona; traditional allies of Milan and supporters of the Montagnard faction in Italian politics. Since they controlled the Adige route from Venice through the Brenner Pass into the Holy Roman Empire, they had been expected to intervene in the war in alliance with Milan.

"And how far are we from the fort?" asked Manfred.

The guide shrugged. "Half a league. Maybe less."

"I think we've got to move fast, Ritters," snapped Manfred. "I'll bet they've left their escort and are advancing on foot."

Erik shook his head. "Scout it quickly first. It shouldn't take ten minutes, it'll rest the horses, and it may spell the difference between success and failure. Ursula must plan to arrive when the fort's defenders can see them easily. That gives us a few minutes."

They halted. The guide slipped forward on foot. He returned to report that there were some hundred or so cavalrymen breakfasting on the edge of a field of peas.

"Right." Manfred took a deep breath. "We don't want to lose the time fighting the troops and let Ursula get into that fort. If we defeat every one of them and she and her henchmen get in . . . we've failed. Remember that chapel. That is what we're dealing with, not some Italian mercenaries. Erik, you tell them how you want to run this. That way you can't complain if I get it wrong."

Erik nodded. Skirmish combat against wild tribes in Vinland was something he had three years of experience with. And more than that in the similar type of warfare which plagued clan-ridden Iceland.

"Knight-Proctor Von Oderberg, you are going to take care of the troops. Manfred, Von Gherens, Etten, and I will keep riding, with Lopez and his companions. Don't get your horses among the peas—you'll lose mobility. If you keep those Scaliger mercenaries dismounted and busy, Von Oderberg, that'll be fine. You don't have to do more than that. Try to tell our fellow Knights you have orders from Sachs to turn them back. But if need be, cut them down."

* * *

They caught sight of the little band bearing the casket not three hundred yards from the fortress's walls. By the sounds of it, Von Oderberg was butchering the escort. Or being butchered. Erik didn't turn around to look; he just bent low over his horse's neck.

One of the monks did turn, perhaps alerted by the sudden thunder of hooves. He shouted something.

The monks and sister Ursula stopped. Erik could see that Sister Ursula was scrawling something in the dust with a long staff. Wind, laden with grit and debris leapt at them. Horses reared and screamed. Ritter Etten and Father Diego fell. Erik struggled to stay on his horse. Hastily, almost falling himself, he managed to dismount. The horse fled.

Erik, Manfred, and Von Gherens, now dismounted, formed a phalanx of steel around Lopez and Father Pierre. As they began to advance, lightnings crackled off the steel. Behind them, Eric heard Lopez saying: "Let that which cannot abide the name of Jesus, begone."

And somehow . . . the resistance eased. They continued plodding forward. Etten came up to join them. "Father Diego is too dazed from his fall," he muttered to Erik. "We won't have his help."

Erik saw that Sister Ursula was ordering the monks to lower the casket to the ground. As they drew closer, he could see that the casket no longer carried its heavy chains and securing locks. Nothing held the lid down beyond its own weight.

They were ten yards away, now. Ursula stood next to the casket at the center of the circle she had scrawled, her staff held upright in one hand, with the four monks standing like guardian statues at the cardinal points. The circle seemed to sparkle.

The nun's wimple had fallen and her hair was revealed: a great mane of it, in a dark corona around her white face. The face itself seemed to bear no expression at all. It might have been the face of a statue, if marble could blink its eyes and move its lips.

"You cannot prevail, Vessel of Chernobog!" said Lopez. "Repent and save your soul. I am Eneko Lopez, Legate of the Grand Metropolitan and master of Holy magic. You cannot prevail. Let your darkness begone! Fiat lux!"

Light leapt even from the stones . . . Except inside the circle.

Ursula laughed. The sound was mocking, but empty—as if an actress were feigning an emotion she had never understood, or had forgotten. "I might even be afraid, Lopez. Lucrezia told me that she failed to find the chink that most men have in their armor. Foolish woman. She thought she was as powerful as I. Impossible, when she refused to join herself fully with the Great Lord."

Erik's flesh crawled. Everything about the way the woman spoke was empty. The nun's habit fell aside. The body that was revealed wore clinging black silk. The half-transparent silk hid little; in fact, it seemed designed to tantalize rather than to conceal. But, again, the display was empty. There was no woman there to give the shapely flesh any real allure. Erik finally understood how completely Chernobog had consumed the creature.

She reached forward, and tapped the casket. "And I have my little friend here."

"Servants of the Holy Trinity, see what you have in your midst!" shouted Lopez.

The monks didn't move. They stood like statues, arms outstretched, warding.

"They are mine, body and soul," said Ursula. "Unlike Lucrezia I insist on total control."

"She stinks of ice and Chernobog," said Pierre.

It was true, thought Erik. That was what the smell reminded him of. Breaking sea ice, with a sickly sweetness over it. It was very strong now.

Suddenly, the Savoyard priest clutched at his crucifix and sat down, gasping. A moment later his eyes rolled back and he slumped on his side, unconscious.

Manfred ignored Pierre's collapse. He glanced at Erik and said lazily, "I heard she was fat as a sow when she joined the order. Sold her soul for a pair of tits."

Erik realized what Manfred was doing: Exactly what the Venetian swordmaster, Giuliano, had taught them. Unbalance your enemy, make them angry. It was a dangerous game. Erik was not prepared to leave him to play it alone. "She got cheated," he sneered. "She's still too ugly to get customers anywhere except the docks."

But the gibes seemed to have no effect on Ursula at all. Erik caught the tiny, tell-tale signs of Manfred tensing. When he lunged forward, so did Erik. So did Von Gherens and Etten.

Erik's sword struck the air above the circle. It was like hitting a wall. He caught a glimpse of Ursula swinging her staff. A huge and shadowy hand swung towards him. It didn't actually make contact, but fear and pain washed though Erik. He wanted to scream, to turn and run. Von Gherens stumbled and fell; Etten whimpered; Manfred grunted and tried to press forward—but was driven back.

Ursula shrieked words Erik did not recognize. Small biting, pinching imps leapt out of the air. They turned to ashes as they struck armor, but there were so many it impossible to see or move.

Then Lopez shouted: "Reverse your swords! Hold them like a crucifix! And ground the tips in the honest earth."

Erik and Manfred immediately obeyed. Staggering back onto his feet, so did Von Gherens. Etten tried, but the sword slipped out of his hands. Lopez began to chant in Latin. Immediately, the imps were immobilized in the air, then began to shrink, then vanish into wisps of smoke. The monk guardians began to crumple.

Ursula shrieked again. Another command of some sort. The four monks seemed to summon their fading strength and began scuffing the soil with their sandals. Within a moment, the circle which Ursula had scratched was broken at the four cardinal points. At the broken points, hot air seemed to eddy out of the circle and wash over Erik and Manfred and the others. The same hot air, swirling at the four compass points like miniature cyclones, sucked the monks dry in an instant; four skin-bags full of bones collapsed to the ground. The heated air seemed to glow and darken simultaneously, as if drawing power and form from its consumption of the monks.

"No closer!" warned Ursula. She laid a hand on the casket's lid. "No closer or I will release the Woden."

Lopez walked forward, coming to stand next to Erik. He held a very small crucifix in his hand. "This is a fragment of the true cross, witch. Evil cannot prevail against it."

Lopez's words seemed to have no effect. Ursula's lips curled in what Erik would have called a sneer, had it not been for the emptiness of the face which framed it. A woman can sneer; a vessel cannot.

"Besides, if you open that casket," said Manfred, "your plot is at naught."

At that moment, Ursula's face underwent a transformation. A horrid one. The face thickened, grew heavy; the shapely cheeks sagged into jowls; the fair brow swelled, looming now over sunken eye sockets. Inside the orbs, a woman's dark eyes became slits of pure black. And now, for the first time, emotion filled the face. Anger and cruelty, overlaid by triumph.

Erik understood that the vessel was now filled to the brim, and overflowing. This was not Ursula; this was Chernobog himself, lurking inside her flesh.

The horrible face—half-man; half-woman—bared white teeth turning yellow as Erik watched. "Do not presume to instruct your betters, stripling. There are plots and plots. If the Woden cannot accomplish one task, it can certainly succeed in another."

Erik's mind seemed to be working much faster than his body. He understood Chernobog's new purpose, and desperately tried to reach Manfred—to seize the prince and hurl him back, out of danger. But some magic was causing his flesh to move like soft lead. The same magic seemed to have frozen Manfred and Von Gherens completely. Etten was no longer standing at all. The knight had crumpled to his knees, his head lolling.

Chernobog/Ursula's voice rolled on. "Here, fool boy—uncontrolled and unwarded—the Woden will kill and kill and kill. You will be dead, and your precious Empire left with one heir the less."

Ursula's hand had remained female. Now, even more suddenly than her face, the hand changed. Grew, swelled, became first the hand of a large man and then the hand—the paw, rather—of something still larger. The claws plunged into the wood of the casket lid and began to raise it. Heat and darkness spilled out of the crack like a flood. A horrible stench came with it.

Lopez stepped forward and met the surge of darkness from the casket with the tiny cross. He shouted some words Erik did not understand. In Greek, he thought, not Latin. Neither the action nor the words seemed to have any effect on the swelling darkness, but Erik felt the paralysis which had kept him almost immobile suddenly lift.

He could see the Chernobog/Ursula face open its mouth. The thick lips began to twist, began to utter words of their own—words which, Erik had no doubt at all, would counter those of Lopez. The Basque priest was still shouting Greek phrases.

But the paralysis was completely gone, now. Erik moved faster than he ever had in his life. The Algonquian war hatchet sailed across the distance and buried itself up to the wirebound hilt in his/her skull. Blood gushed. The obsidian eyes seemed to flame black fire for an instant, before the body toppled back and fell to the ground. As it fell, all traces of Chernobog left the face and then, more slowly, the hand. But the talons remained longest of all—long enough to draw the lid of the casket open as Ursula fell.

The hot, stinking blackness poured out like lava from a volcano, sweeping over Erik and Manfred and all the others. Erik could hear the gleeful shriek of a monster somewhere.

That shriek was immediately overridden by another. Etten's voice, that was, howling in agony. Erik turned toward the sound, his eyes tearing from the heat and the stench. The Woden monster had seized upon Etten, he knew. Etten, the weakest of them, was being consumed by fire from within.

Suddenly, Lopez's voice rang out more loudly than Erik would have believed possible, coming from such a small man. In an instant, the darkness vanished and Erik could see clearly again.

Etten was writhing on the ground, his fingers clawing at the straps of his helmet. Smoke was pouring up through the visor. Von Gherens, nearest to him, leaned over and began to help. A flash of flame seemed to leap through the visor and smite the Prussian knight in the face.

Now it was Von Gherens' turn to writhe on the ground, screaming in agony.

"Quick!" shouted Lopez. "Use your swords!"

Moving together, Erik and Manfred grabbed their swords by the hilts and held them up like great crucifixes.

"One over each," panted Lopez. Manfred stooped over Von Gherens, Erik over Etten. After a moment, the smell of burning flesh seem to ebb.

Slightly. Not much. Erik glanced at Lopez. The Basque priest's face was drawn and haggard.

"It is too strong," he murmured. "Too strong—and too attached to Etten." Lopez's eyes seemed hollow under the solid eyebrows.

But whatever weakness the priest might be feeling, none of it was apparent in his next words.

"Kill Etten. Do it now, while there is still time."

Erik stared at him. The Basque shook his head. "He is dead anyway, Erik. The burning has already destroyed too much of his body. But we can still rescue his soul, if we release him from the Woden in time."

Still, Erik hesitated. He glanced at Von Gherens. The Prussian knight seemed unconscious. Erik could see enough of his face through the visor to see that there was still a face there. Whereas Etten—

He looked through the visor of the knight below him. Through that visor he could see nothing but . . . burnt flesh. Like a piece of meat charred in a fire.

Still, he hesitated. "And then what? Do the same for Von Gherens? And then what? Cut our own throats?"

Lopez shook his head wearily. "I cannot fight this monster in salamander form. If Pierre were still with us—or, better yet, Dottore Marina—"

Again, he shook his head. "I can hold it at bay, for a time, but not combat it directly. You will have to do it, Erik—you and Manfred."

Manfred had said nothing, but he had apparently been following the discussion. "Fat chance of that, Lopez! What Erik and I know about magic wouldn't fill half a manuscript page. And all of it would be gibberish."

Lopez's laugh was more of a crow's caw than anything else. "Have no fear of that! I cannot fight the thing, but I can transform it into something which you can fight. But I warn you—it will be monstrous."

Erik's hands tightened on the sword hilt. "Something flesh and blood, you mean?"

"Heh. In a manner of speaking, yes. A particularly horrid form of it, you understand."

"Flesh and blood is flesh and blood," growled Manfred. He hefted the sword higher. "And steel is steel. Do it."

The last two words were spoken by a prince, and no one could mistake it. Erik hissed his own agreement, and Lopez bowed his head for a moment.

When the Basque's head came back up, however, there was not a trace of obeisance in his face. His was the face of a man born to command himself.

"Obey me, then. Erik, kill Etten. Manfred, stand back from Von Gherens."

Erik hesitated no longer. Using the hilt to drive the sword, he plunged the blade through the gaps in the armor into Etten's throat. Then, twisted it to open the wound before withdrawing the sword. Arterial blood fountained, for a moment. Not long. That wound would have killed an elephant.

He stepped back. Manfred had already done the same. Von Gherens began to writhe again as smoke, again, began to rise through his visor.

Lopez shouted something—again, in that odd language which Erik had thought was Greek but now suspected was something else entirely—and held the crucifix high. What seemed like a clap of thunder struck the world all around. Erik flinched; so did Manfred.

Von Gherens screamed and arched his back. A stream of black something spewed out of his gaping mouth and spilled onto the ground several yards away.

Another clap of thunder; a wave of darkness.

Then, for the first time since the battle had begun, Erik felt all traces of magic vanish. The sunlight was clean again, with no obscuring darkness. He felt enormous relief pouring through him and took a deep breath.

And . . . deeply regretted it. The stench was worse than ever.

But at least now the source of the stench was clear and obvious. On the spot where the black something had spilled, a monster rose on its haunches.

It was huge; half again Manfred's size. Somewhere in its misshapen and hideous form Erik could detect the remnants of something which had once been human—or close to it. Mostly in the upper face, which still had a recognizable aspect. The one eye possessed by the monster—the other was scarred over, as if the eye had been torn out sometime long ago—was quite human in appearance. Bright blue; piercingly blue. The eyebrows were as blond as Erik's own.

The rest . . .

The lower face protruded in apelike jaws; though they bore a closer resemblance to those of an eel than those of an ape when the monster bared its teeth and roared its fury. A thick tongue writhed purple behind teeth that were not even remotely mammalian. They reminded Erik of shark's teeth more than anything else.

Everything about the monster had that bizarre, horrible half-and-half quality. The hind legs were those of a land animal of some kind. A giant wolf's, perhaps—except the skin was naked, almost scaly. The arched heavy spine was also that of a mammal, with a straggly mane that resembled human hair more than animal fur. But the heavy tail was purely reptilian.

The front limbs were perhaps the worst of all. Heavy, powerful arms—almost human, except for their size—ended in a demon's taloned paws. Except no demon Erik had ever heard of possessed suckers on its palms and forearms. As if an octopus were part of its ancestry.

Again, the monster roared. There was a peculiar glee to the sound. As if the creature had been forced into silence for so long that the mere act of making noise was a joy in its own right.

"Any advice, Lopez?" asked Manfred cheerfully. The big prince was holding his sword by the hilt, now, ready to fight.

Erik glanced at the Basque priest. But Lopez, he saw immediately, would be of no more further assistance. The man was clearly exhausted. Lopez simply shook his head and whispered, "This is your affair now, Prince of the Realm. I can do no more. God and the Right."

Erik felt a moment's dismay at the last words. He knew that Manfred would—

Sure enough. "Dia a coir!" bellowed the prince, striding forward two steps and bringing his heavy sword down on the monster with a great two-handed swing.

Reckless idiot! Erik lunged forward.

The monster squalled—half in fury, half in glee—and evaded the blow deftly. The sword sank into the soil. An instant later, spinning, the Woden's tail lashed around and knocked Manfred's legs out from under him. The prince landed on his back, his sword flying out of his hands. Fortunately, Erik's training in wrestling enabled Manfred to break the fall by slapping down his arms.

But, for that moment, he was helpless. The Woden charged forward like a crocodile, great jaws gaping. A taloned and suckered hand raised for the death blow.

This time, it was the monster's turn to misgauge. Erik moved far faster than the Woden expected. His sword met the downstrike and removed the hand at the wrist as neatly as a carrot top removed by a knife. The hideous thing went sailing through the air and plopped into some nearby bushes.

The Woden shrieked in agony, black blood pumping from its severed wrist. The jaws lunging at Manfred's throat veered aside and snapped at Erik.

Another mistake. Again, the monster was caught by surprise. No human it had ever faced moved as quickly as the Icelander. Erik sidestepped the snapping jaws; then, as they gaped wide again, his sword slid through the teeth, mangling the great tongue.

The Woden squalled in pain and fury and twisted aside, blood gushing from its maw. The tail lashed around, striking at Erik's legs. But the blow was blocked. First, by Erik driving his sword into the soil; then, by Manfred lunging forward and grappling the monster's hindquarters. The prince gathered his legs under him, ignoring the claws scrabbling at his armor. Then, with a grunt, heaved the monster completely off the ground and slammed it into a nearby tree. The tree—a sapling, really—broke under the impact. So did the Woden's ribs.

Erik was astonished. He'd always known that Manfred was far stronger than the average man. But he realized now that he'd never really seen Manfred exert his entire strength. This was—almost superhuman. The monster must have weighed at least four hundred pounds.

Again, the Woden lashed its tail; and, again, knocked Manfred down. This time, however, the prince had been expecting the blow. So he was simply staggered to his knees rather than upended.

Desperately, Erik raced forward. As badly injured as the Woden was, the horror was still alive and still quite capable of wreaking havoc. And Manfred—his charge and responsibility—was facing another attack. Unarmed, and on his knees.

The Woden sprang at the prince, using its hind legs to drive and its remaining forelimb for balance. The jaws opened like a shark's—and if the tongue was a ruin, the teeth were not.

To Erik, everything seemed to move as slowly as ice. The jaws were approaching Manfred faster than his sword could intervene. Jaws now gaping wide enough to close on Manfred's entire head, helmet and all—and Erik didn't doubt for a moment that those jaws were quite capable of crushing the helmet like a snail.

Manfred broke its jaw. One punch, with an armored fist, skewed the Woden's bite into a harmless snap. The monster coughed blood, half-stunned. But its forward momentum knocked Manfred on his back again, this time with the Woden sprawled across him.

Erik hesitated, unsure where to strike with the sword that wouldn't risk hitting Manfred.


"Gah! What a stink!"

The monster's head and back suddenly lurched up. Manfred, lying beneath the creature, was holding it up with his big hands clamped firmly around its gullet. Holding it up—and steady.

"Do me the favor, would you?" hissed the prince. Erik's sword drove into the glaring blue eye and deep into the Woden's brain. The monster twitched and shuddered. And kept twitching and shuddering, after Erik jerked the sword loose from the skull.

With another great heave, Manfred tossed the thing off. Soaked with blood, he rose to his feet and stalked over to the place where his sword had been sent sailing. Then, stalked back. The Woden was lying on its side, still twitching and shuddering.

* * *

Manfred spent the next considerable period of time hacking it into small chunks. He didn't stop until each single piece of the monster was lying motionless and the blade of his sword was as dull as a table knife.

Erik tried to restrain him, early on, so that he could examine the prince for injuries. But Manfred would have none of it. "Dia a coir!" was repeated perhaps two dozen times, intermingled with other expressions which were vulgar and profane beyond belief.

Eventually, Erik gave up and went to help Lopez, who had begun tending to Von Gherens. The Prussian knight was alive, though still unconscious. But now that the Basque priest had removed the man's helmet, Erik was relieved to see that the burn marks on Von Gherens's face were not as bad as he had feared.

"He'll be all right, with a little rest," murmured Lopez. "The facial scars will be bad, but—at least he's a Prussian. They treasure the things, so there should be no really adverse consequences."

He glanced at Manfred, still furiously dismembering the already-dismembered carcass of the Woden, and smiled slyly. "Unlike your friend, who—I daresay—is adding years in purgatory with every oath that comes out of his mouth."

Erik wasn't quite sure how to respond. Lopez shook his head. "Not your problem, my fine young Icelandic friend. You are not responsible for protecting the Hohenstauffens from God, after all."

Erik couldn't help grinning. "True enough." Seeing that Lopez needed no further help with Von Gherens for the moment, Erik went over to retrieve his hatchet from the corpse of Sister Ursula.

But . . . there was no corpse; just a burned piece of grass.

And there was no hatchet, either. Only the wirebound shaft remained.

* * *

After a time, Erik fell silent. Lopez clucked his tongue. "And I daresay you've just added as many years. Where did you learn to curse like that, anyway?"

Stolidly, Erik stared at the priest. Then, pointed at Manfred, who had finally left off with his hacking.

"Oh, sure," grumbled the prince. "Blame everything on me!"


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