Acre, Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, 1291
The Holy Land is lost.
That single thought kept assaulting Martin of Carmaux, its brutal finality more terrifying than the hordes of fighters swarming through the breach in the wall.
He fought to block the thought, to push it away.
Now was not the time to lament. He had work to do.
Men to kill.
His broadsword held high, he charged through the clouds of choking smoke and dust and plunged into the seething ranks of the enemy. They were everywhere, their scimitars and axes ripping into flesh, their warrior howls piercing the haunting, rhythmic beat of the kettle drummers outside the fortress walls.
With all of his strength, he brought down his sword, splitting one man's skull clear to the eyes, his blade springing free as he lunged at his next opponent. Flicking a quick glance to his right, he spotted Aimard of Villiers driving his sword into the chest of another attacker before moving on to his next opponent. Dazed by the wails of pain and the screams of rage around him, Martin felt someone clutch at his left hand and swiftly clubbed the offender away with the pommel of his sword before bringing down its blade, feeling it cut through muscle and bone. From the corner of his eye, he sensed something menacingly close to his right and instinctively swung his sword at it, slicing through the upper arm of another one of the invaders before slashing open his cheek and severing his tongue in one blow.
It had been hours since he or any of his comrades had known any respite. The Muslim onslaught had not only been ceaseless, it had also been far worse than anticipated. Arrows and projectiles of blazing pitch had rained down incessantly on the city for days, starting more fires than could be tackled at once, while the Sultan's men had dug holes beneath the great walls into which they had packed brushwood that was also set alight. In several places, these makeshift furnaces had cracked the walls that were now crumbling under a barrage of catapulted rocks. The Templars and the Hospitallers had managed, by sheer force of will, to repulse the assault on Saint Anthony's Gate before setting it on fire and retreating. The Accursed Tower, however, had lived up to its name, allowing the rampaging Saracens into the city and sealing its fate.
Gargling shrieks of agony receded into the confused uproar as Martin yanked his sword back and looked around desperately for any sign of hope, but there was no doubt in his mind. The Holy Land was indeed lost. With mounting dread, he realized that they would all be dead before the night was over. They were facing the largest army ever seen, and despite the fury and the passion coursing through his veins, his efforts, and those of his Brothers, were surely doomed to failure.
It wasn't long before his superiors realized it too. His heart sank as he heard the fateful horn calling on the surviving Knights of the Temple to abandon the city's defenses. His eyes, darting left and right in a confused frenzy, again found those of Aimard of Villiers. He saw in them the same agony, the same shame that was burning through him. Side by side, they fought their way through the scrambling mob and managed to make their way back to the relative safety of the Templar compound.
Martin followed the older knight as he stormed through the throngs of terrified civilians who had taken refuge behind the bourg's massive walls. The sight that greeted them in the great hall shocked him even more than the carnage he had witnessed outside. Lying on a rough refectory table was William of Beaujeu, the Grand Master of the Knights of the Temple. Peter of Sevrey, the Marshal, stood at his side, along with two monks. The woeful looks on their faces left little room for doubt. As the two knights reached his side, Beaujeu's eyes opened and he raised his head slightly, the movement causing an involuntary groan of pain. Martin stared at him in stunned disbelief. The old man's skin was drained of all color, his eyes bloodshot. Martin's eyes raced down Beaujeu's body, struggling to make sense of the sight, and he spotted the feathered bolt sticking out of the side of his ribcage. The Grand Master held its shaft in the curve of his hand. With his other, he beckoned Aimard who approached him, knelt by his side and cupped his hand with both of his own.
'It is time,' the old man managed, his voice pained and weak, but clear. 'Go now. And may God be with you.'
The words drifted past Martin's ears. His attention was elsewhere, focused on something he'd noticed as soon as Beaujeu had opened his mouth. It was his tongue, which had turned black. Rage and hate swelled in Martin's throat as he recognized the effects of the poisoned bolt. This leader of men, the towering figure who had dominated every aspect of the young knight's life for as long as he could remember, was as good as dead.
He noticed Beaujeu lifting his gaze to Sevrey and nodding almost imperceptibly. The Marshal moved to the foot of the table and lifted a velvet cover to reveal a small, ornate chest. It was not more than three hands wide. Martin had never seen it before. He watched in rapt silence as Aimard rose to his feet and gazed solemnly at the chest, then looked back at Beaujeu. The old man held his gaze before closing his eyes again, his breathing taking on an ominous rasp. Aimard went up to Sevrey and hugged him, then lifted the small chest and, without so much as a backward glance, headed out. As he passed Martin, he simply said, 'Come.'
Martin hesitated and glanced at Beaujeu and at the Marshal, who nodded his head in confirmation. He hurried quickly after Aimard and soon realized that they weren't heading toward the enemy.
They were heading for the fortress's quay.
'Where are we going?' He called out.
Aimard didn't break his step. 'The Falcon Temple awaits us. Hurry.'
Martin stopped in his tracks, his mind reeling in confusion. We're leaving?
He had known Aimard of Villiers since the death of his own father, a knight himself, fifteen years earlier, when Martin was barely five years old. Ever since, Aimard had been his guardian, his mentor. His hero. They had fought many battles together and it was fitting, Martin believed, that they would stand side by side and die together when the end came. But not this. This was insane. This was... desertion.
Aimard stopped too, but only to grasp Martin's shoulder and push him into motion. 'Make haste,' he ordered.
'No,' Martin yelled, flicking Aimard's hand off him.
'Yes,' the older knight insisted tersely.
Martin felt nausea rising in his throat; his face clouded as he struggled for words. 'I will not desert our Brothers,' he stammered. 'Not now - not ever!'
Aimard heaved a ponderous sigh and glanced back at the besieged city. Blazing projectiles were arcing into the night sky and hurtling down into it from all sides. Still clutching the small chest, he turned and took a menacing step forward so that their faces were now inches apart, and Martin saw that his friend's eyes were wet with unshed tears. 'Do you think I want to abandon them?' he hissed, his voice slicing the air. 'Abandon our Master - in his final hour? You know me better than that.'
Martin's mind seethed with turmoil. 'Then... why? '
'What we have to do is far more important than killing a few more of those rabid dogs,' Aimard replied somberly. 'It's crucial to the survival of our Order. It's crucial if we are to make sure everything we've worked for doesn't die here as well. We have to go. Now.'
Martin opened his mouth to protest, but Aimard's expression was fiercely unequivocal. Martin bowed his head in curt, if unwilling, acquiescence and followed.
The only vessel remaining in the port was the Falcon Temple, the other galleys having sailed away before the Saracen assault had cut off the city's main harbor a week earlier. Already low in the water, it was being loaded by slaves, sergeant-brothers, and knights. Question after question tumbled through Martin's brain but he had no time to ask any of them. As they approached the quay, he could see the ship's master, an old sailor he knew only as Hugh and who, he also knew, was held in high regard by the Grand Master. The burly man was watching the feverish activity from the deck of his ship. Martin scanned the ship from the aftcastle at the stern, past its high mast and to the stem from which sprang the figurehead, a remarkably lifelike carving of a fierce bird of prey.
Without breaking step, Aimard's voice bellowed out to the ship's master. 'Are the water and provisions loaded?'
'Then abandon the rest and set sail at once.'
Within minutes, the gangplank was pulled in, the mooring ropes cast off, and the Falcon Temple was pulled away from the dockside by oarsmen in the ship's longboat. Before long, the overseer had called out and the banks of galley slaves had dipped their oars into the dark water. Martin watched as the oarsmen scrambled up onto the deck then hauled the longboat up and made it secure. To the rhythmic beat of a deep gong and the grunts of over a hundred and fifty chained rowers, the ship gathered speed and cleared the great wall of the Templar compound.
As it moved into open water, arrows rained down on it while the sea around it erupted with huge, sizzling explosions of white foam as the Sultan's crossbows and catapults were trained on the escaping galley. It was soon beyond their range, and Martin stood up, glancing back at the receding landscape. Hordes of Saracens lined the city's ramparts, howling and jeering at the ship like caged animals. Behind them, an inferno raged, resounding with the shouts and screams of men, women and children, all against the incessant rolling thunder of the drums of war.
Slowly, the ship gathered speed, aided by the offshore wind, its banks of oars rising and falling like wings skimming the darkening waters. On the distant horizon, the sky had turned black and threatening.
It was over.
His hands still shaking and his heart leaden, Martin of Carmaux slowly and reluctantly turned his back on the land of his birth and stared ahead at the storm that awaited them.
At first, no one noticed the four horsemen as they emerged out of the darkness of Central Park.
Instead, all eyes were focused four blocks south of there where, under a barrage of flashbulbs and television lights, a steady stream of limos decanted elegantly attired celebrities and lesser mortals onto the curb outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
It was one of those mammoth events that no other city could pull off quite as well as New York, least of all when the hosting venue happened to be the Met. Spectacularly lit up and with searchlight beams swirling across the black April sky above it, the sprawling building was like an irresistible beacon in the heart of the city, beckoning its guests through the austere columns of its neoclassical facade, over which floated a banner which read:
There had been talk of postponing the event, or even canceling it altogether. Yet again, recent intelligence reports had prompted the government to raise the national terror alert level to orange. Across the country, state and local authorities had stepped up security measures, and although New York City had been at orange since 9/11, additional precautions were taken. National Guard troops were posted at subways and bridges, while police officers were working twelve-hour shifts.
The exhibition, given its subject matter, was deemed to be particularly at risk. Despite all this, strong wills had prevailed and the museum's board had voted to stick to its plans. The show would go on, further testimony to the city's unbreakable spirit.
A young woman with impeccable hair and brightly enameled teeth stood with her back to the museum, taking her third shot at getting her intro right. Having failed at studiously knowledgeable and blasé, the reporter was going for earnest this time as she stared into the lens.
'I can't remember the last time the Met hosted such a star-studded party, certainly nothing since the Mayan show and that's going back a few years,' she announced as a chubby, middle-aged man stepped out of a limo with a tall, angular woman in a blue evening dress a size too tight and a generation too young for her. 'And there's the Mayor and his lovely wife,' the reporter gushed, 'our very own royal family and fashionably late, of course.'
Going on in earnest, she adopted a more serious look and added, 'Many of the artifacts on display here tonight have never been seen by the public before, anywhere. They've been locked away in the vaults of the Vatican for hundreds of years and-'
Just then, a sudden surge of whistles and cheers from the crowd distracted her. Her voice trailing off, she glanced away from the camera, her eyes drifting toward the growing commotion.
And that was when she saw the horsemen.
The horses were superb specimens: imperious grays and chestnuts, with flowing, black tails and manes. But it was their riders that had roused the crowd.
The four men, riding abreast, were all dressed in identical medieval armor. They had visored helmets, chain mail vests, flanged plate leggings over black jerkins and quilted hose. They looked as though they had just beamed in through a time travel portal. Further dramatizing the effect, long scabbarded broadswords hung from their waists. Most striking of all, they wore long white mantles over their armor, each bearing a splayed, blood-red cross.
The horses were now moving at a gentle trot.
The crowd went wild with excitement as the knights advanced slowly, staring ahead, oblivious to the hoopla around them.
'Well, what do we have here? It looks like the Met and the Vatican have pulled out all the stops tonight, and aren't they magnificent,' the reporter enthused, settling now for plain old showbiz. 'Just listen to that crowd!'
The horses reached the curb outside the museum, and then they did something curious.
They didn't stop there.
Instead, they turned slowly until they were facing the museum.
Without missing a step, the riders gently coaxed their mounts up and onto the sidewalk. Continuing the advance slowly, the four knights guided the horses onto the paved piazza.
Side by side, they ceremoniously climbed up the cascading steps, heading unerringly for the museum's entrance.
'Mom, I've really gotta go,' Kim pleaded.
Tess Chaykin looked at her daughter with an annoyed frown on her face. The three of them - Tess, her mother Eileen, and Kim - had only just walked into the museum, and Tess had hoped to take a quick look around the crowded exhibits before the speeches, the schmoozing and the rest of the unavoidable formalities took over. But that would now have to wait. Kim was doing what every nine-year-old inevitably did in these occasions, which was to hold off until the least convenient time had arrived before announcing her desperate need for a rest room.
'Kim, honestly.' The grand hall was teeming with people. Navigating through them to escort her daughter to the ladies' wasn't a prospect Tess relished right now.
Tess's mother, who wasn't doing much to hide the small pleasure she was finding in this, stepped in. 'I'll take her. You go on ahead.' Then, with a knowing grin, she added 'Much as I enjoy watching you get your payback.'
Tess flashed her a grimace, then looked at her daughter and smiled, shaking her head. The little face and its glinting green eyes never failed to charm its way out of any situation.
'I'll meet you in the main hall.' She raised a stern finger at Kim. 'Stay close to Nana. I don't want to lose you in this circus.'
Kim groaned and rolled her eyes. Tess watched them disappear into the melee before turning and heading in.
The huge foyer of the museum, the Great Hall, was already crowded with gray-haired men and vertiginously glamorous women. Black ties and evening gowns were de rigueur and, as she looked around, Tess felt self-conscious. She fretted that she stood out as much for her understated elegance as for her discomfort at being perceived as part of the 'in' crowd all around her, a crowd she firmly had no interest in.
What Tess didn't realize was that what people noticed about her had nothing to do with her being understated in the precise, seamed black dress that floated a few inches above her knees, nor with her discomfort at attending platitude-intensive events like this one. People just noticed her, period. They always had. And who could blame them. The seductive mass of curls framing the warm green eyes that radiated intelligence usually triggered it. The healthy, thirty-six year old frame that moved in relaxed, fluid strides confirmed it, and the fact that she was totally oblivious to her charms sealed it. It was too bad she'd always fallen for the wrong guys. She'd even ended up marrying the last of that contemptible bunch, a mistake she had recently undone.
She advanced into the main room, the buzz of conversation echoing off the walls around her in a dull roar that made individual words impossible to determine. Acoustics, it seemed, had not been a prime consideration of the museum's design. She could hear traces of chamber music, and tracked it to an all-female string quartet tucked away in a corner and sawing away energetically but almost inaudibly at their instruments. Nodding furtively at the smiling faces in the crowd, she made her way past Lila Wallace's ever-present displays of fresh flowers and the niche where Andrea della Robbia's sublime blue-and-white glazed terracotta Madonna and Child stood gracefully watching over the throng. Tonight though, they had company, as this was only one of many depictions of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary that now adorned the museum.
Almost all of the exhibits were displayed in glass cabinets, and it was clear from even a cursory glance that many of those exhibits were enormously valuable. Even for someone with Tess's lack of religious conviction, they were impressive, even stirring, and as she glided past the grand staircase and into the exhibition hall, her heart raced ahead with the rising swell of anticipation.
There were ornate alabaster altar pieces from Burgundy, with vivid scenes from the life of Saint Martin. Crucifixes by the score, most of them of solid gold and heavily encrusted with precious stones; one of them, a twelfth-century cross, consisted of more than a hundred figures carved out of a walrus tusk. There were elaborate marble statuettes and carved wooden reliquaries; even emptied of their original contents, these chests were superb examples of the meticulous work of medieval craftsmen. A glorious brass eagle lectern proudly held its own next to a superlative six foot painted Spanish Easter candlestick, which had been prized away from the pope's own apartments.
As Tess took in the various displays, she couldn't help but feel recurring pangs of disappointment. The objects before her were of a quality she would have never dared hope for during her years out in the field. True, they had been good, challenging years, rewarding to a certain extent. They had given her a chance to travel the world and immerse herself in diverse and fascinating cultures. Some of the curiosities she had unearthed were on display in a few museums scattered around the globe, but nothing she'd found was noteworthy enough to grace, say, the Sackler Wing of Egyptian Art or the Rockefeller Wing of Primitive Art. Maybe... maybe if I'd stuck with it a little bit longer. She shook the thought away. She knew that that life was over now, at least for the foreseeable future. She would have to make do with enjoying these marvelous glimpses into the past from the remote, passive viewpoint of a grateful observer.
And a marvelous glimpse it was. Hosting the show had been a truly remarkable coup for the Met, because almost none of the items sent over from Rome had ever been previously exhibited.
Not that it was all gleaming gold and glittering jewels.
In a cabinet facing her now was a seemingly mundane object. It was a mechanical device of some sort, about the size of an old typewriter, boxlike and made of copper. It had numerous buttons on its top face, as well as interlocking gears and levers protruding from its sides. It seemed out of place amidst all this opulence.
Tess brushed aside her hair as she leaned forward to take a closer look. She was reaching for her catalogue when, above her own blurred reflection in the glass of the cabinet, another loomed into view as someone came up behind her.
'If you're still looking for the Holy Grail, I'm going to have to disappoint you. It ain't here,' a gravelly voice said to her. And although it had been years since she'd heard it, she recognized it even before she turned.
'Clive.' She turned, taking in the sight of her former colleague. 'How the hell are you? You look great.' Which wasn't exactly true; even though he was barely into his fifties, Clive Edmondson looked positively ancient.
'Thanks. How about you?'
'I'm good,' she nodded. 'So how's the grave-robbing business these days?'
Edmondson showed her the backs of his hands. 'The manicure bills are killing me. Other than that, same old same old. Literally,' he chuckled. 'I hear you joined the Manoukian.'
'Oh, it's great,' Tess told him. That wasn't true either. Joining the prestigious Manoukian Institute had been a big coup for her, but as far as the actual experience of working there went, things weren't all that good. But those things you kept to yourself, especially in the surprisingly gossipy and backstabbing world that archaeology could be. Seeking an impersonal remark, she said, 'You know, I really miss being out there with you guys.'
His faint smile told her he wasn't buying that. 'You're not missing much. We haven't hit the headlines yet.'
'It's not that, it's just...' She turned, glancing at the sea of displays around them. 'Any one of these would have been great. Any one.' She looked at him, suddenly melancholic. 'How come we never found anything this good?'
'Hey, I'm still hoping. You're the one who traded in the camels for a desk,' he quipped. 'Not to mention the flies, the sand, the heat, the food if you can call it that...'
'Oh my God, the food,' Tess laughed. 'Come to think of it, I'm not so sure I really miss it anymore.'
'You can always come back, you know.'
She winced. It was something she often thought about. 'I don't think so. Not for a while, anyway.'
Edmondson found a grin that seemed more than a little strained. 'We'll always have a shovel with your name on it, you know that,' he said, sounding anything but hopeful. An awkward silence settled between them. 'Listen,' he added, 'they've set up a bar over in the Egyptian Room, and from the looks of it, they've got someone who knows how to mix a decent cocktail. Let me buy you a drink.'
'You go ahead, I'll catch up with you later,' she said. 'I'm waiting for Kim and my mom.'
He held up his palms. 'Whoa. Three generations of Chaykins - that should be interesting.'
'You've been warned.'
'Duly noted,' Edmondson nodded as he ventured into the crowd. 'I'll catch you later. Don't disappear on me.'
Outside, the air around the piazza was electric. The cameraman jostled to get into a clean shot as the claps and whoops of delight from the elated crowd drowned out his reporter's efforts at commentating. It got even noisier when the crowd spotted a short, heavy-set man in a brown security guard uniform leave his position and hurry over to the advancing horsemen.
From the corner of his eye, the cameraman could tell something wasn't exactly going according to plan. The guard's purposeful stride and his body language clearly indicated a difference of opinion.
The guard raised his hands in a stopping motion as he reached the horses, blocking their procession. The knights reined in their horses, which snorted and stamped, obviously uncomfortable at being kept stationary on the steps.
An argument seemed to be under way. A one-sided one, the cameraman observed, as the horsemen weren't reacting to the guard's ranting in any discernible way.
And then one of them finally did something.
Slowly, milking the moment for all its theatricality, the knight closest to the guard, a bear of a man, unsheathed his broadsword and raised it high above his head, provoking another barrage of popping flashbulbs and yet more applause.
He held it there, with both hands, still staring straight ahead. Unflinching.
Although he had one eye glued to his viewfinder, the cameraman's other eye was picking up peripheral images and he was suddenly aware of something else happening. Hurriedly, he zoomed in on the guard's face. What was that look? Embarrassment? Consternation?
Then he realized what it was.
The crowd was now in a frenzy, clapping and cheering wildly. Instinctively, the cameraman zoomed out a touch, broadening his view to take in the horseman.
Just then, the knight suddenly brought down his broadsword in a quick, sweeping arc, its blade glittering terrifyingly in the flashing artificial light before striking the guard just below the ear, the power and velocity of the blow great enough for it to shear straight through flesh, gristle and bone.
From the onlookers came a huge collective gasp which turned into penetrating screams of horror that rang through the night. Loudest of all was the shriek of the reporter who clutched at the cameraman's arm, causing his picture to judder before he elbowed her away and kept on shooting.
The guard's head fell forward and began to bounce hideously down the museum's steps, unspooling a splattered, red trail all the way down behind it. And after what seemed like an eternity, his decapitated body slumped sideways, collapsing onto itself while spouting a small geyser of blood.
Screaming teenagers were stumbling and falling in their panic to escape the scene, while others, further back and unaware of exactly what was happening but knowing that something big was taking place, pushed forward. In seconds there was a terrified tangle of bodies, the air ringing with screams and cries of pain and fear.
The other three horses were now stamping their hooves, jinking sideways on the steps. Then one of the knights yelled, 'Go, go, go!'
The executioner spurred his mount forward, charging at the wide-open doorways to the museum. The others bolted and followed close behind.
In the Great Hall, Tess heard the screams from outside and quickly realized there was something very, very wrong. She turned in time to see the first horse burst through the door, shattering glass and splintering timber inward as the Great Hall erupted into chaos. The smooth, polished, immaculate gathering disintegrated into a snarling atavistic pack as men and women shoved and screamed their way out of the path of the charging horses.
Three of the horsemen rampaged through the crowd, swords crashing through display cabinets, trampling on broken glass and shattered timber and damaged and destroyed exhibits.
Tess was thrown aside as scores of guests tried desperately to escape through the doors and into the street. Her eyes darted around the hall. Kim, Mom - Where are they? She looked around, but couldn't see them anywhere. To her far right, the horses wheeled and turned, obliterating more displays in their path. Guests were sent flying into cabinets and against walls, their pained grunts and shrieks echoing in the vast room. Tess glimpsed Clive Edmondson among them as he was knocked violently sideways when one of the horses suddenly reared backward.
The horses were snorting, nostrils flared, foam spilling from around the bits in their mouths. Their riders were reaching down and snatching up glittering objects from the broken cabinets before stuffing them into sacks hooked onto their saddles. At the doors, the crowd trying to get out made it impossible for the police to get in, helpless against the weight of the terrified mob.
One of the horses swung around, its flank sending a statue of the Virgin Mary reeling over to smash onto the floor. The horse's hooves pounded down onto it, crushing the Madonna's praying hands. Ripped from its mounting by the fleeing guests, a beautiful tapestry was trampled underfoot by both people and animals. Thousands of painstaking stitches, shredded in seconds. A display case toppled, a white and gold miter bursting through the breaking glass to be kicked aside in the mad scramble. A matching robe drifted, magic carpet-like, until it, too, was stamped upon.
Hurriedly getting out of the way of the horses, Tess looked down the corridor where, partway along, she could see the fourth horseman and beyond him, way back at the far end of the corridor, yet more people scattering into other parts of the museum. She searched for her mom and her daughter again. Where the hell are they? Are they alright? She strained to pick out their faces from the blur of the crowd, but there was still no sign of them.
Hearing a commanding shout, Tess spun around to see that the police officers had finally made it through the fleeing mob. Weapons drawn and shouting above the mayhem, they were closing in on one of the three horsemen who, from beneath his robe, pulled out a small, vicious looking gun. Instinctively, Tess dropped to the floor and covered her head, but not before witnessing the man loose a burst of bullets, moving the gun from side to side, spraying the hall. A dozen people went down, including all of the policemen, the broken glass and smashed cases around them now splattered with blood.
Still crouched on the floor, her heart pounding its way out of her chest, and trying to keep as still as she could even though something inside was screaming at her to run, Tess saw that two of the other horsemen were now also brandishing automatic weapons like the one their murderous consort was carrying. Bullets ricocheted off the museum walls, adding to the noise and to the panic. One of the horses reared suddenly and its rider's hands flailed, the gun in one of them sending a fusillade of bullets up one wall and onto the ceiling, shattering ornate plaster moldings that came showering down onto the heads of the crouching, screaming guests.
Risking a glance from behind her cabinet, Tess's mind raced as she evaluated routes of escape. Seeing a doorway to another gallery three rows of exhibits beyond to her right, Tess willed her legs forward and scurried toward it.
She had just reached the second row when she spotted the fourth knight headed straight toward her. She ducked, darting quick glances as she watched him weave his mount among the rows of still undamaged cabinets, apparently uninvolved and unconcerned with the mayhem his three companions were wreaking.
She could almost feel the breath venting from his snorting horse as the knight suddenly reined to a stop, barely six feet away from her. Tess crouched low, hugging the display for dear life, urging her beating heart to quieten. Her eyes drifted up and she spotted the knight, reflected in the glass displays around her, imperious in his chain mail and his white mantle, staring down at one cabinet in particular.
It was the one Tess had been looking at when Clive Edmondson had approached her.
Tess watched in quiet terror as the knight drew his sword, swung it up and brought it thundering down onto the cabinet, smashing it to bits and sending shards of glass spewing onto the floor around her. Then, sliding his sword back into its scabbard, he reached down from the saddle and lifted out the strange box, the contraption of buttons, gears and levers, and held it up for a moment.
Tess could barely breathe and yet, against all rational survival instincts she believed she possessed, she desperately needed to see what was happening. Unable to resist, she leaned out from behind the display case, one eye barely clearing the edge of the cabinet.
The man stared at the device, reverently it seemed, for a moment, before mouthing a few words, almost to himself.
'Veritas vos libera-'
Tess stared, entranced by this seemingly most private of rituals, when another burst of gunfire snapped both her and the knight out of their reverie.
He wheeled his horse around and for an instant, his eyes, though shadowed beneath the visor of his helmet, met Tess's. Her heart stopped as she crouched there, utterly and helplessly frozen. Then the horse was coming her way, straight at her-
-before brushing past, and as it did so she heard the man yelling to the other three horsemen, 'Let's go!'
Tess rose to see that the big horseman who had started the shooting was herding a small group into a corner by the main staircase. She recognized the Archbishop of New York, as well as the Mayor and his wife. The leader of the knights nodded his head and the big man forced his mount through the knot of distraught guests, grabbed the struggling woman and lifted her up onto his horse. He jammed his gun into the side of her head and she went still, her mouth open in a silent scream .
Helpless, angry and afraid, Tess watched as the four horsemen moved toward the doorway. The lead knight, the only one without a gun, she noticed, was also the only one without a bulging sack tied to his pommel. And as the horsemen charged away through the galleries of the museum, Tess stood up and rushed though the debris to find her mother and her young daughter.
The knights stormed out through the doors of the museum and into the glare of the television floodlights. Despite the sobbing of the frightened and the moaning of the injured, it was suddenly a lot quieter and from around them came shouts; men's voices, police mostly, with random words identifiable here and there: '... hold your fire!' '... hostage!' '... don't shoot!'
And then the four horsemen were charging down the steps and up the avenue, the knight with the hostage protectively bringing up the rear. Their movements were brisk but not urgent, contemptuous of the approaching police sirens sawing at the night, and in moments they had disappeared back into the marled darkness of Central Park.