Christmas Serial in 25 parts
for good boys and girls everywhere
Story by Steve Englehart Art by Joe Staton
December 16: The Treasure Hunt
In the great sea to the west of Lycia, the sun sank in a panoply of purple and gold. It was a magnificent sight, especially so from the mountaintop above Myra -- but Bishop Nikola kept his eyes on the fortress.
He had arrived some fifteen minutes earlier, edging as close as he dared without allowing himself to be seen from the tower. Twice since then, he had spotted the guards on the balustrade, but he himself remained invisible behind a pile of toppled boulders, eating his meat and fruit.
It was colder than ever at this altitude, and grew colder still when the sun vanished altogether. A plume of black smoke billowed from the fortress chimney, to be ripped apart immediately by the increasing winds. Bishop Nikola had decided on the time that he would make his move, and he stuck to his decision even though his clothes could not keep him warm. He crouched, shivering but otherwise unmoving, until high above the highest peak, the first star of night appeared.
Then Nikola moved forward. He was a heavy man, but he was graceful. He could slide through narrow openings smaller men might balk at entering. He seemed to have an instinct for when to move and when to hold still. And he reached the fortress without being seen.
The gate was exactly where it had been shown in the picture. So was the stone he needed to press. It was a long stretch for the bishop, but he made it: the gate swung open.
There was no outcry.
He slipped quickly into the courtyard's shadows, and pulled the gate closed behind. There was sound involved, and it seemed loud in his ears, but evidently the sound of the wind on the balustrade kept the guards from hearing it. Gerondimar's guards relied on fear of the bandit chieftain and the hidden means of entry more than their own vigilance. But he had no illusions about how vulnerable he was, inside the tower.
He ran across the open court, hugging the shadows, and entered the far doorway. Here was the bandits' main chamber. A heavy wooden table littered with half-eaten food split it down the middle, and a well-laid fire roared in the huge fireplace facing the door. It came to Nikola that he would be outlined in the doorway by the firelight, should anyone look that way, and he almost jumped inside. There was another door across the room, leading deeper into the fortress.
He began to search for the treasure trove, and he began to pray.
First, he examined every inch of the four walls, from the flooring to the highest point he could reach, in hopes that Gerondimar had a mind similar to his own. When he was certain that that wasn't the case (for which, he had to admit, he was grateful), he dropped to his hands and knees and crawled around the floor, searching for a loose flagstone. He found nothing, and too much time passed. He slipped carefully back to the courtyard doorway and stepped quickly outside, to stand in the night-shadows and listen. High above, the guards had ceased their patrolling and were swapping jokes about Greeks.
Reassured, Nikola returned to the room and went on through to the next one, which turned out to be the kitchen. A greasy stove yielded nothing, a foul-smelling larder yielded nothing, a moldy grain-bin yielded nothing. Again the walls and floor were examined; again he was denied.
He went to the next room, a barracks. He doubted immediately that anything could be hidden here, where the bandits spent their off-hours, but it had to be searched.
He found nothing.
Now he was becoming very concerned. He hadn't expected this quest to be easy, but he had hoped a reasonably intelligent and determined man with the spirit of the Lord on his side could succeed at it. His ease of entry had led him to think that fear was his biggest obstacle, and not the ingenuity of the bandit-king. But two hours had passed since that entry, and he still had no idea where the secret room could be.
He walked back to the main room. This, too, looked to be constantly in use, with the leftover food and the crackling fire
"There's no one here now," murmured Nikola, eyes widening. "The guards are atop the walls. So why is the fire burning??"
He ran toward the table and grabbed the largest knives he could find. He ran toward the hearth and began to pry the flaming logs out onto the stone floor. And all the time he was thinking furiously, The fire is burning to make certain no one looks in this fireplace while Gerondimar is gone!
Even with the logs removed, the hearth was hot, but Nikola hunched his shoulders inside his robes so his sleeves hung over his hands, protecting them as he pushed on the hearth's back wall.
It swung open easily, to reveal a room filled with glorious treasures. Diamonds, rubies, coronets, and heaps of gleaming coins filled every corner. He had never seen or even dreamed of anything like it; it must have been the contents of hundreds of caravans. But on top of the pile was his bag of gold, and that bag was all he took.
Now he couldn't escape this fortress fast enough. The hidden door, still hot, would be harder to pull closed than to push open, so he left it open as he ran across the main chamber and out into the chill darkness. Above him a guard laughed and whooped, "Well, one time in Cadyanda -- " Nikola made certain to stay where the owner of that voice couldn't see him as he made his way to the gate, and waited only momentarily, for another burst of laughter, before opening it. Outside, the three-quarter moon was just rising, drowning the tumbled boulders in gray-black shadows. He slipped through them like a fish running rapids, and there was his horse, right where had left it.
Just then, however, he heard other riders approaching from deeper in the mountains. "Not a minute to spare!" he whispered fervently, and prodded his horse down the narrow path.
But no more than two minutes later, he heard shouts of outrage and fury from behind him. He spurred his horse to greater speed, but the animal had its eyes on the drop to the valley below. It clattered forward as quickly as it dared, and under ordinary circumstances, Nikola would have agreed that that was fast enough.
But these were not ordinary circumstances.
For now, dim in the distance but growing louder, he heard the sound of horses racing after him. And he knew the bandits' horses were much more accustomed to the dangers of this path.
He spurred his horse again, harder, and prayed for all he was worth that he would reach the town alive!
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