Fierabras stood in the patch of sunlight, making no attempt to chase.
The Saracen knew he was too late.
The wagon crested the ridge at last and reached the rutted, dry trail atop it. They would make good speed now. German soil lay only a league from here. The Saracen's ambush had failed.
Movement drew Joachim's attention.
Fierabras drew a great bow from over a shoulder, black as the shadows. He slowly set arrow to string. Once notched, he leaned back and drew a full pull.
Joachim frowned. What did he hope to win with one feathered bolt?
The bow sprang, and the arrow flew, arching over the valley, lost for a moment in the sunlight above the ridgeline. Joachim searched the skies, tense. Then as silent as a diving falcon, the arrow struck, shattering into the centermost casket.
Impossibly the sarcophagus's lid cracked with the sound of a thunderbolt. Ropes broke free as the crate split, scattering open. Loosed now, all three crates slid toward the open rear of the wagon.
Men ran forward, attempting to stop the stone sarcophagi from crashing to the ground. Hands reached. The wagon was halted. Still, one of the crates tilted too far. It toppled and crushed a soldier beneath, breaking leg and pelvis. The poor man's scream christened the air.
Franz hurried, dropping from his saddle. He joined the men in attempting to lift the stone crate off the soldier and more importantly back into the wagon.
The sarcophagus was lifted, the man dragged free, but the crate was too heavy to raise to the wagon's height.
"Ropes!" Franz yelled. "We need ropes!"
One of the bearers slipped. The sarcophagus fell again, on its side. Its stone lid fell open.
The sound of hoof beats rose behind them. On the trail. Coming fast. Joachim turned, knowing what he'd find. Horses, lathered and shining in the sun, bore down on them. Though a quarter league off, it was plain all the riders were dressed in black. More of the Saracen's men. It was a second ambush.
Joachim merely sat his horse. There would be no escape.
Franz gaspednot at their predicament, but at the contents of the spilled sarcophagus. Or rather the lack thereof.
"Empty," the young friar exclaimed. "It's empty."
Shock drove Franz back to his feet. He rolled atop the wagon's bed and stared into the crate shattered by the Saracen's arrow.
"Nothing again," Franz said, falling to his knees. "The relics? What ruin is this?" The young friar found Joachim's eyes and read the lack of surprise. "You knew."
Joachim stared back at the rushing horses. Their caravan had all been a ruse, a ploy to draw off the black pope's men. The true courier had left a day ahead, with a mule team, bearing the true relics wrapped in roughspun cloth and hidden inside a hay bundle.
Joachim turned to stare across the vale at Fierabras. The Saracen might have his blood this day, but the black pope would never have the relics.
July 22nd, 11:46pm
As midnight approached, Jason passed his iPod to Mandy. "Listen. It's Godsmack's new single. It's not even released in the States yet. How cool is that?"
The reaction was less than Jason hoped. Mandy shrugged, expressionless, but she still took the proffered earphones. She brushed back the pink-dyed tips of her black hair and settled the phones to her ears. The movement opened her jacket enough to reveal the press of her apple-sized breasts against her black Pixies t-shirt.
"I don't hear anything," Mandy said with a tired sigh, arching an eyebrow at him.
Copyright © 2004 James Rollins - Excerpted from Map of Bones by James Rollins. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher, William Morrow.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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