Authors: James Becker
When realization finally dawned, it was too late for the knights to rein in their steeds, and the helpless animals, carrying their equally helpless riders, slammed into the halberds. The horses died instantly as the points of the pikes and halberds drove through their armored breastplates and deep into their chests, and the knights, the wind knocked out of their bodies by the impact with the ground, died soon afterward.
The entire engagement took only a matter of minutes. Seeing the mounted knights brought down and slaughtered, the surviving Habsburg soldiers abandoned both their weapons and all thoughts of combat and simply fled for their lives.
And then, when the result of the brief and brutal conflict was no longer in the slightest doubt, six mounted men approached the scene of the battle along the track, from the far side of the rough barricade. Seeing them coming, a gang of confederate soldiers quickly began removing the tree trunks and rocks to open a passage wide enough to allow them to ride through.
The newcomers were fully armed and armored knights, each equipped with a dagger, a battle sword, and a shield, and three of them carried lances. But where they differed from the Habsburg knights, many of whom lay dead and dying on the ground in front of them, was in their shields and surcoats. All were pure white, and devoid of any heraldic device or emblem, nothing to identify them. The
lack of such a symbol proclaimed to anyone who saw them that these men owed allegiance to no lord or master, and fought for no king. For whatever reason, they were their own men, independent and answerable to no one.
“The White Knights,” one of the confederates whispered, almost reverently, moving to one side as he did so.
A confederate officer, virtually indistinguishable from his fellows, stepped forward and bowed before the knights as a mark of respect.
“It worked exactly as you predicted, my lord,” he said.
The knight nodded and pointed behind the officer, where two confederate soldiers were holding down a wounded and dismounted knight while a third soldier drove a dagger into his eye socket through the slit in his helmet.
“That is not permitted,” the knight said. “You may do what you wish with the rank-and-file soldiers, but the nobility are to be accorded special privileges. Their wounds are to be treated, and word sent to their families so that they may be ransomed.”
The confederate officer glanced behind him, where the same three soldiers were steadily advancing toward another badly injured knight, and shrugged.
“You explained that to us before, my lord,” he replied, “but we are few in number and so vulnerable, and we believe it important that our enemies receive a very clear message of our intent and determination. We are not interested in ransom. We are only interested in being left alone.”
The wounded knight screamed once, long and hard,
his body bucking and kicking against the restraining hands of the confederate soldiers, as the dagger point was slowly pressed home; then he fell silent.
The White Knight nodded.
“As you wish,” he said, his voice betraying something of the emotion he was feeling.
The Rule by which he and his comrades had lived for so long was absolutely specific: they were forbidden to engage in combat with other Christians, which was why they had taken no direct part in the battle that had just been fought. But at the same time, their order had suffered what many considered to be the ultimate betrayal, cast aside by those for whom they had always fought and for whom so many had died, and in those circumstances most of the precepts of this overriding Rule now seemed almost irrelevant.
“This is your country, not ours,” he went on, “and no doubt you are better able than us to judge the situation. I merely wished to point out the normal rules of chivalric behavior.”
“Thank you. And thank you, too, for your guidance and suggestions for the battle today. If we had met the Habsburgs in conflict on open ground, the result would have been very different, and for that we are most grateful.”
The officer glanced behind him again, where roving teams of confederate soldiers were methodically working their way through the ranks of wounded and disabled soldiers, slaughtering each one as they reached him.
Over fifteen hundred Habsburg soldiers died that day, and such was the brutality shown by the confederate
troops that many of the retreating infantryman walked into the lake and drowned themselves rather than face the swords and daggers of their victorious foes.
The confederate officer was quite right: they were sending a message, to the Habsburgs and to everyone else. A clear and unequivocal message.
“As I said, we owe you our thanks. Your arrival here was indeed fortunately timed. Will you now be continuing your journey?”
The obvious leader of the White Knights shook his head.
“We are not undertaking a journey in the way that you mean,” he replied. “In fact, we have probably traveled as far as we need to. If you can find space for us here in your country, we would very much like to stay.”
The confederate officer nodded briskly. “After what happened today, I am sure that that would not be a problem for anybody. I am also sure that there is much that you can teach us.”
“There is, and not just about battlefield tactics. We have hard-won experience culled from two centuries of campaigns, assets that span the continent and even farther afield, and esoteric knowledge that has guided us in our endeavors. And we will be happy to share everything with you in exchange for a safe haven in which to live. That, my friend, is all we ask.”
“Then you are indeed welcome, my lord. You and your companion White Knights.”
Via di Sant’Alessio, Aventine Hill, Rome, Italy
Privacy costs money, and was a benefit that few could afford in Rome. The Via di Sant’Alessio was one of the most exclusive areas of the city, and in that quiet road privacy was both expensively purchased and expected. Very few of the properties located there displayed the slightest outward indication of what activity or activities were carried out inside them. One of these, a substantial detached building encircled by well-tended gardens behind high walls, offered nothing more than a house number to anyone who looked at it.
Inside this building it was always busy, because it contained some of the more private administrative facilities of a much more public organization that was located in a
building facing the Lungotevere Aventino, not too far from the minor basilica of Santa Sabina.
One of the departments working within the building was a specialist intelligence and operational unit, a group of people who had virtually no contact with any of the other staff in the building because they had no need to do so. Their place of work was a small suite of air-conditioned rooms in the lowest level of the basement, accessed only through a steel-lined door that was permanently locked and only ever opened to allow the unit’s staff to come and go. None of the other people working in the building, not even the most senior administrators, had any right of access to the basement at any time or for any reason. It formed the most private and deniable part of the Ordo Praedicatorum, was answerable to nobody, and had essentially unlimited funding. Provided, of course, that the long-term goals of the organization—goals that might appear senseless to an outsider—were met.
In his private office within that suite, Silvio Vitale leaned back in his chair and stared with barely disguised hostility at the man standing in front of him. It was an obvious measure of the tone of the interview so far that his subordinate, Marco Toscanelli, was still standing rather than sitting in one of the comfortable leather chairs in front of the desk.
“How sure are you that they’re both dead?” Vitale demanded.
He was a slim man who had a pencil-thin mustache and a deceptively friendly appearance. Deceptive because, as Toscanelli knew only too well, he could erupt without
warning into violent rages that were characterized by calculated brutality and extreme violence directed against anyone who had offended him. As always, Vitale was wearing a black suit, the unofficial uniform of the organization of which he was the head.
Toscanelli shook his head. “I can’t be certain of that, no. After we opened the chests in the cave, they both ducked down into the tunnel system that ran under the cave. We didn’t even know that the tunnel existed, because the entrance that had been exposed once they’d shifted the rocks and timbers just looked like a hole in the ground. We tossed a grenade after them, but I don’t know if they were caught in the blast or not. I had other things to deal with at the time.”
“Yes,” he said frostily. “You had to take care of things like shooting two of your own men because they were too badly injured to be moved out of the cave. That brought your tally of men from this organization that you have personally executed out in the field to an impressive total of five. Not to mention the other man who you claim was killed by Mallory. And all of them, I would remind you, died on one single operation.”
“I had no choice,” Toscanelli protested, shaking his head. He had Italian movie-star good looks, tanned and regular features under curly black hair, but the anguish in his brown eyes was obvious and his unusually pale complexion was a sign of the strain he was feeling. He knew there was a better than even chance that Vitale would end the interview by ordering his execution,
because failure was something the order never tolerated willingly. He shook his head and explained again what had happened.
“Their injuries were so severe that even if we could have somehow got them to a hospital, they would certainly have died from shock and blood loss. We had no clue that those two medieval chests contained booby traps. Lethally effective booby traps.”
“Obviously,” Vitale replied dryly. “But what I find interesting is that from what you’ve told me both Mallory and Jessop apparently guessed that some kind of device might have been built into the chests, because of the way they made their escape at the very instant that your two men opened the lids. I’ve seen the chests, obviously, but not the booby trap. How exactly did the mechanism work, the device that did the damage?”
“I can do better than explain it to you,” Toscanelli replied, encouraged by what he thought was a subtle change in Vitale’s tone. “I have one of the chests outside and I can show you precisely how it worked. With your permission, of course.”
Vitale nodded assent.
Toscanelli turned, walked back to the office door, opened it, and issued a short command. A few moments later, a man walked into the office carrying a fairly small and obviously old wooden chest, the curved lid inlaid with an intricate pattern of wrought-iron decoration. He stepped forward, lowered the chest to the carpet where Toscanelli indicated, bowed respectfully to Vitale, and left the room.
“It’s smaller than I had expected,” Vitale said, “and it doesn’t look like much.”
“It’s not what it is so much as what it does. And that’s really impressive, in a brutal sort of way.”
Toscanelli stepped behind the chest, leaned forward over it, grasped the front of the lid, and lifted it. With a faint creak from the pair of ornate hinges that were mounted on the back edge of the chest, the lid swung open, revealing an entirely empty interior.
“That,” Toscanelli said, “was what we expected to happen when my men unlocked and opened the two chests. What we hadn’t anticipated was this.” He pointed inside the curved lid, where an intricate construction of metal had been concealed by whichever medieval craftsman had fabricated it. “And because of the weight of the chests we were certain they were full, and of course they were, but filled only with rocks, which we definitely hadn’t expected.”
He closed the chest again and pointed to a pair of small metal objects in the form of rings or circles, one on either side of the lid and each rising about an inch above the complex decoration.
“Obviously these aren’t the original locking pins,” he said. “I had these made up in the workshop here, once we worked out how the mechanism had been set and triggered.”
He slid his right forefinger through one of the circular objects and pulled firmly. As the length of steel emerged, Vitale heard a very faint metallic click from somewhere within the chest, a sound that was repeated a couple of seconds later when Toscanelli removed the second pin.
Each piece of steel was about four inches long and roughly a quarter of an inch in diameter.
“With the pins removed, the holes are virtually invisible and appear to be just a part of the complex decoration on the lid. Which was obviously the idea, so that there would be no external indication of the mechanism inside.”
“So removing the pins was like priming a hand grenade?” Vitale suggested. “A hand grenade with a fuse set for half a millennium?”
“Yes, though it was set, in fact, for eternity, because they’d only be triggered when somebody came along and opened the chests. Both mechanisms had obviously been very well lubricated to ensure that they stayed in good condition. And they were also protected by the chests being closed and locked and then buried underground, because both booby traps worked faultlessly. This is what happened when my men opened them.”
Toscanelli again reached forward and grasped the front edge of the chest lid and lifted it back and toward him.
The moment the lid cleared the body of the chest, there was a metallic clatter and two polished steel blades scythed outward from it, the action like opening an enormous pair of scissors. The speed of the blades, clearly driven by powerful springs because of the way the chest itself rocked backward, was too fast for the eye to see, but the deadly intent of the booby trap was obvious.
Toscanelli raised the lid all the way, revealing the extent of the complex mechanism within, a mechanism that was now harmless because it had just been triggered.
“The blades are hinged at the base, but the whole
frame is cantilevered to give them extra reach,” he said, pointing at one part of the structure. “When it’s released, this whole section moves forward as the blades swing out. The arc they cover is wide enough to ensure that anyone standing or sitting in front of the chest will be severely injured. You saw the way the chest moved with the force of the blades deploying?”
“When we found the chests, they were full of rocks, as I said. I think the people who hid them under the floor of the cave in Cyprus did that for two reasons. First, the rocks would give the impression they were stuffed full of treasure, to ensure that they’d be opened as quickly as possible by whoever discovered them, but I think the second reason was to give them enough weight to provide a firm base for these blades to do their work. When they were triggered, neither chest moved at all when the lids were opened, despite the blades cutting two of my men virtually in half.”
“And you said the chests were locked as well.”
“They were. But again I think that was just to convince anyone who found them that they contained something of great value, which would make them more eager to get the chests open without inspecting them too closely.”
“Someone exactly like you, in fact,” Vitale observed.
“Yes,” Toscanelli replied shortly, his tone bitter.
“But as I said a few minutes ago, you told me that Jessop and Mallory took advantage of the confusion to dive into the tunnel under the cave and escape. That suggests they knew—or at least they guessed—that something was
going to happen when you opened the chests, which raises all sorts of other questions.”
“I have a theory about that.”
“Do enlighten me,” Vitale said, shifting his attention from the chest on the floor and back to Toscanelli himself.
“Back in Dartmouth, when I went up into Jessop’s apartment to find out what had happened, I saw the most horrendous wounds on Giacomo’s hands. It looked as if somebody had driven several large nails through the palm of his left hand and others into the knuckles of his right. He was unconscious and had bled a lot, though either Jessop or Mallory had secured his wrists with plastic cable ties, and these were acting as a tourniquet. Both our men had been armed, and the people they were facing were not, so to me the only thing that makes sense is that there was some device in the apartment that had caused these wounds.”
“What do you mean by ‘device’?”
Toscanelli shrugged. “I don’t know. But we know Jessop must have found the
parchment or scroll because of the search strings she used on the Internet, and it wouldn’t have been just lying around somewhere. Logically it must have been secured in some kind of container, a box or something, and because of the mechanism we found inside the chests, I think that was probably booby-trapped as well. There was nothing I could see in the apartment that could have been the cause of the injuries I saw on Giacomo’s hands, but there was a safe in the corner of the room, so maybe whatever it was had been locked away in there. Either that or presumably Mallory or Jessop took it away with them.”
Vitale nodded slowly.
“That makes sense,” he said. “But if you’re right, why didn’t Jessop also trigger the booby trap when she opened whatever this object was?”
Toscanelli shrugged. “I don’t know, but I can guess. She’s a woman, so I suppose she might have used some kind of tool to open the container rather than just her bare hands, and that could have protected her from injury.”
“Or maybe she was a lot smarter than Giacomo and guessed the object incorporated a defensive system,” Vitale suggested. “And then she managed to jam or disable it.”
“Perhaps. But with any luck, we’ve seen the last of those two. Hopefully they’re dead and buried somewhere in the tunnel system under that cave in Cyprus.”
Vitale shook his head decisively.
“They’re not,” he snapped. “We know that they flew out of Cyprus the day after you left the island, and ended up in France. Then they flew in a private aircraft to a small airfield in Devon called Dunkeswell, near a town named Honiton, and then, according to one of the tertiaries who acts for us in the British police force, they drove to Exeter. According to the same man, they’re talking to the police there at this very moment, presumably putting their side of the story. How well they tell it will no doubt affect how quickly they’ll be released. But I’m sure they will be back on the streets soon because they would hardly have gone to the police unless they’d got their stories straight and had devised a sequence of events that ensured that they weren’t implicated in any of your killings.”
Toscanelli looked both surprised and extremely irritated by this information.
“So what do you want me to do about them?” he asked.
Vitale gave him a long look. “What I want done is exactly the same thing I wanted you to do originally. Thanks to your incompetence, they know too much about us and our quest and they’re probably going to try to interfere with what we have to do next. So we—not necessarily you, but some members of the order—are going to have to find them and kill them.”