Read Tales of the Knights Templar Online
Authors: Katherine Kurtz
Thierry drew himself up. He said roughly, “Tell me how to find this City of Brass.”
A look of stern satisfaction passed across Saladin’s face. “In good time,” he said. “First you must swear by all you hold holy that you will indeed seek out the fabled city and return here to my camp with the prize I seek.”
Thierry placed his right hand over his heart. “I do so swear,” he said grimly.
The sun was a bowl of molten bronze, so hot that it seemed to have scorched all the color out of the desert sky. Thierry guided his sweating horse at a snail’s pace along the uneven floor of a sunbaked valley. The surrounding terrain was a parched wilderness of withered thorn trees and venomous scorpions. But directly in front of him now, towering up a hundred feet into the air on either hand, stood two slender pinnacles of stone: the Horns of the Gazelle—the gateway, so he had been told, to the deserts surrounding the City of Brass.
The Saracen encampment lay four days behind him. The intervening journey had been gruelling, even by the standards Thierry had grown accustomed to since joining the Templar Order. His tongue was thick with thirst, and his eyes stung from the grit being blown up into his face by the capricious desert wind. The longsword strapped in its sheath across his back had worn blisters between his shoulder blades, despite the protective thickness of the quilted acton he was wearing underneath his borrowed desert robes.
The sword was the one he had carried at Cresson. The dagger strapped to his thigh had been salvaged from some brother knight’s corpse left lying on the battlefield. The rest of his gear—blankets, waterskins, and provisions—had been supplied by Saladin prior to his departure. The mount he was riding was no heavy-boned Frankish charger but a stunted hill pony, bad-tempered as a camel and hardy as a mountain goat.
Besides these basic necessities for desert travel, Saladin had provided one thing more: a scarab-shaped amulet half the size of a man’s palm. Thierry was wearing it openly, suspended around his neck on a stout leather thong. The scarab’s body was of polished bronze, its carapace cut from a single piece of dark red carnelian. Boldly stamped upon the underside of the body was Saladin’s own seal.
That seal was Thierry’s guarantee of safe passage through Saracen territory. He had been assured that while he carried it, no member of the Faithful would venture to harm him. The amulet, however, had another, secret function, one that Saladin had not shared with Thierry until the last moment before he set out. Only then had Thierry learned that concealed beneath the carapace was a hollow compartment containing a small silver key.
The key was intricately made, its metal blackened with antiquity. Framed at the center of the elaborately wrought headpiece was a window of clear rock crystal the size of a man’s thumbnail.
“This key was made in the City of Brass,” Saladin had informed him in a low voice. “Once you have passed through the Horns of the Gazelle, it will be your guide.”
The set of instructions which accompanied this revelation had seemed senseless to Thierry at the time. As he rode forward into the shadow of the twin stone pillars, however, he became conscious of an eerie tingling sensation at the base of his skull. The tingling grew stronger as he approached the gap. Staring up at the slender soaring columns, Thierry felt his skepticism wither away in a sudden shiver of dread.
That very fear, so foreign to his nature and his knightly profession, was the spur that drove him forward. By some strange trick of the desert light, the Horns seemed to lean in toward one another. High overhead, their twin summits seemed for an instant to merge in the illusion of an arch. As Thierry passed between them, a sudden heavy pulse slammed him full in the chest.
Like a hammer striking a gong, the sensation seemed to center on the amulet where it rested against his breastbone. With a choked cry Thierry slumped over his saddlebow. His horse took a skittish forward bound, almost unseating him. The next instant they were through the gap, with the pillar stones behind them.
The sense of vibration abruptly vanished. Recovering, Thierry snatched the reins short. The pony jibbed, throwing its ugly head nervously from side to side. Thierry forced it to a standstill, then whipped around in the saddle to look back the way he had come.
Still breathless with shock, he half expected to see the beginnings of a landslide. Instead, the stone pillars stood firm, pointed like needles toward the sun-bleached sky. The shadows under the rocks were wavering like ghosts in the desert heat. Otherwise everything was preternaturally still.
Thierry drew a deep breath and scanned the prospect in front of him. The terrain on this side of the gateway was much the same as that he had left behind him, an arid panorama of sand, stone, and dry brush, with no visible clues as to which way he should proceed. His gaze dropped to the amulet resting against his chest. Securing the pony’s reins to his saddlebow, he took scarab in hand and thumbed the tiny catch at the base of the head.
The carapace sprang open. Thierry removed the key and weighed it thoughtfully in his palm. “The stone is a window on the City of Brass,” Saladin had said. “When you are facing the direction in which the city lies, you will find yourself viewing its image in the window before you.”
With a humorless shrug, Thierry raised the crystal to his right eye and scanned the landscape in front of him in a wide arc from left to right. Initially the lens showed him nothing that he didn’t expect to see. His gaze traveled on past the median. As his vision gravitated toward the northeast, an image suddenly manifested itself on the crystal pane in front of him.
An image of walls and roofs, arches and towers.
Thierry recoiled with a muttered imprecation. A second look, however, confirmed his discovery. There in front of him, reduced to miniature by the size of the crystal, floated the metallic image of a city made of brass.
When he turned aside, the image vanished. When he returned the lens to its previous orientation, the image reappeared.
Thierry lowered his hand, his teeth glinting through his beard in a mirthless smile. “It would seem my course lies in that direction,” he muttered to himself aloud. “Very well, so be it.”
The decision he had made five years ago—the decision which had set him apart from his fellow Templars—was, he felt sure, the true reason he had been chosen to seek out whatever strange destiny now awaited him. With a renewed sense of purpose, he put the key away for safekeeping and prepared to ride on.
Normally he would have rested through the heat of the afternoon and continued his journey once the sun was down; now, however, it seemed advisable to carry on in broad daylight while the brightness of the sun made the image in the crystal easy to see. For the next several hours he rode north by northeast, pausing every so often to check his bearings. When darkness came on, he found a nest of boulders large enough to shelter him from the wind, and there made camp for the night.
As soon as the sun was up, he rose and carried on his way. After a morning spent toiling through an arid range of foothills, he arrived at the edge of a wide plateau. A hazy line on the opposite horizon hinted at more hills to come. After a brief rest in the meager shade of a tall rock, he took a few sparing sips of water and pressed on again.
The plateau was a dancing floor for whirlwinds. Thierry could see them whipping their way across the landscape, tossing up fierce plumes of sand and loose rock. He began to come across sunken ravines, like the remnants of long-vanished sea caves. The ravines were strewn with monstrous bones—the skeletal remains of strange leviathan creatures left dead and stranded here unimaginable eons ago.
By nightfall he had come no farther than midway. His sleep that night was fitful, tormented by dreams of sparkling fountains that ran dry each time he came to drink. At dawn he gave the pony the last of the water in his waterskin and set out again in a daze of fever and thirst. The image of the city glittered in the crystal before him like a mocking promise of deliverance.
The dark haze he had seen on the horizon the day before assumed the forbidding shape of an unbroken palisade of cliffs. The midday sun showed the faces of the rocks to be as sheer and unscalable as the ramparts of a mighty fortress. Thierry drew rein in the shadow of the walls. Fighting off the blinding stupefaction of thirst, he consulted the key again, and discovered he was being directed toward somewhere off to his left.
Keeping close to the cliff’s base, he had covered little more than a furlong when the pony suddenly pricked up its drooping ears. Even as Thierry started up out of his own daze, it gave a wheezing snort and lunged forward.
A vertical rift seemed to open up out of nowhere in front of them. It was narrow and tight as a chimney flue. Nostrils flaring, the pony shot for the gap. When Thierry tried to rein in, he was scraped from the saddle and flung bruisingly to the ground behind.
Cursing, he picked himself up and limped forward. Just beyond the entrance to the gap lay a small enclosure no more than ten feet across. The floor of the enclosure had been hollowed out on one side to form a shallow basin. The basin was brimming with water.
The pony was already drinking noisily. Throwing caution to the winds, Thierry plunged in to do the same. The water was rust brown and had a bitter mineral taste, but he was not disposed to question whether or not it might be poisoned. He slaked his thirst and filled his waterskins, only then pausing to consult the key.
To his puzzlement, it seemed to be pointing him toward the cliff itself. He scrubbed a hand roughly across the lower half of his face and sat back on his haunches to think. As he did so, his ear caught the sluggish trickle of running water. Straightening up, he cast a look around the walls of the enclosure, trying to determine where the sound was coming from.
The rock wall above was broken by a narrow zigzag fault. Half masked by neighboring slabs of stone, the fault seemed to extend all the way to the clifftop. Thierry measured the rift with his eye. It looked difficult, but not impossible to scale.
After hobbling the pony, he stripped the saddle from the animal’s back and left it with the rest of his sparse gear in a heap among the rocks. His longsword, however, he retained, along with a gourdful of water and a handful of dry biscuits tied up in a sack at his belt. The key he returned to its compartment inside the amulet bearing Sal-adin’s seal. Tucking the amulet itself inside his robe, he set his gaze on the clifftop and resolutely began to climb.
The rocks were furnace-hot to the touch. Halfway to the top, he was obliged to stop and wrap his hands with rags torn from the hem of his robe. Light-headed from the heat, he forced himself not to look down. After a nerve-wracking struggle up a perpendicular shaft, he at last arrived at the safety of a jutting ledge.
The ledge receded into a dark cave mouth. Left without any visible means to continue his ascent, Thierry sat down to catch his breath and consult the key. It came as no surprise to discover that he could only advance by entering the cave. He put the key back in its place and stepped through the opening.
Having neither torch nor lantern, he could only trust to luck to prevent him from going astray in the dark. Keeping his right hand in contact with the wall, he began gingerly to advance. The darkness gaped to receive him, cold as the grave after the blazing heat of the sun he was leaving behind. Shivering, he was about to take a last backward look at the doorway when he realized that there was a faint glow emanating from the amulet riding on his chest.
The source of the glow was not the amulet itself, but the key inside. Long past questioning the nature and properties of the key, Thierry dropped down on one knee and carefully thumbed the catch. The blaze of light as he took out the key was strong enough to show him a long tunnel stretching away from him into the distance. Holding the key at arm’s length before him, he stood up and set out along the passageway.
The tunnel ran straight. Initially the walls were blank, but after a while Thierry became aware of faint lines of inscription running along beside him on either hand. The inscriptions were disquieting to study too closely. He wrenched his gaze away and pressed on.
It seemed as if he had been walking for hours when his straining eyes spotted a winking pinpoint of light ahead of him. The pinpoint rapidly expanded until he could make out the shape of another opening. His heart beating more quickly, he put the key away and quickened his pace. Hurrying forward, he emerged into strong sunlight on a high balcony of stone overlooking the circular sweep of a broad plain. The plain was entirely encircled by mountains. Seen from above, it was a scorched anvil of hard-baked earth, its surface fissured with cracks. At the center of the plain lay a harshly glittering collection of buildings, littering the parched ground like blocks scattered at random by a giant’s hand. The maze of roofs and turrets was enclosed within a metallic ring of high walls.
The City of Brass itself!
Thierry stopped to fortify himself with some biscuit and a drink before making his descent to the valley floor. Not a breath of wind was stirring as he set out across the plain. He had the impression it had not rained here for uncounted centuries. Cut off from the rest of the world, this remote plain was arid and lifeless, a place where the hand of Creation had faltered.
Thierry approached the city from the west. Towering gates of tarnished brass stood ajar like the sagging jaws of a skull. Thierry slipped through the gap and halted. Dwarfed by the surrounding walls, he cast a long look around him at the perfectly preserved structures of a city long dead and all but forgotten.
He was standing on one side of what might once have been a broad marketplace. All the edifices fronting the square, however, had only blank facades, like so many unfinished drawings. Thierry looked in vain for some sign of a door or a window. If there was any way in or out of these buildings, he could not see any.
Crossing the square, he struck a wide avenue that ran eastward through a succession of soaring arches. The buildings lining both sides of the avenue might once have been shops, but again there was no visible means of entry or exit. There was not a sound anywhere. The ground seemed to drink up the sound of Thierry’s footbeats, leaving only silence behind.