Westphalia, Ge rmany
Henry the Lion could feel their eyes digging into his skull. The blindfold
held fast, but the theater of his mind played out the scene—the golden
statue of the Virgin before him, and around him, cloaked from head to toe
in robes the color of coal, the members of the Black Vehm. His ears filled
with the sound of their breathing in unison, like the bellows of hell sighing
in eternal lament. The dank-smelling subterranean room bore no other
sound—no one was allowed to speak, save the Lord of the Tribunal.
“What say you, Lion?”
Henry recognized the booming voice immediately. A chill rippled
through his body.
The blindfold was torn from his face. Through blinking eyes he
watched the giant approach, inching so close that his flame-red beard
scoured Henry’s face.
“Are you surprised by my presence?” Barbarossa asked.
Henry answered, “Your presence is of no importance to me. I am
simply dismayed by my position here. I have stood before this court
many times, but never from this foul vantage point.”
It was true. The red-bearded giant occupied Henry’s usual position
of authority. Apparently he had missed the message that there had been
a change in leadership. How unfortunate. It would not be long before
they killed him. That was the only purpose the court seemed to serve—
to vanquish from society those who abused the Ten Commandments.
Of course, over time the court had found the commandments to be
too narrow a constraint and had drawn up its own long list of amendments
to God’s holy law, including six sins held to be the worst of all
Sixteen years earlier Barbarossa had canonized Charlemagne, the first
emperor of the Holy Roman empire. Barbarossa seemed obsessed with
continuing the great king’s legacy. Henry knew that his own ascent to
power put that goal squarely in jeopardy.
“Why have I been brought before this court, Duke of Swabia?”
Henry asked. The name was a deliberate stab at the giant’s authority—
an undercutting of his title as the new emperor of the Holy Roman
empire. He immediately felt the needle-sharp point of a sword creep
under his chin.
“You will call me emperor, as the commoners do,” Barbarossa said,
pressing the sword tip ever so slightly into the soft flesh of Henry’s neck.
“You have persuaded me, emperor,” Henry said, filling the word
with as much disdain as he dared. He backed away from the sword,
which Barbarossa lowered—but not before flashing the insignia stamped
upon its blade. SSGG. The hideous initials made Henry’s blood run cold.
He cleared his throat, gathering his nerve. “I demand to know why I
have been brought here.”
“You demand?” Barbarossa said, turning and walking toward the
statue of the Virgin Mary, which glowed with the mirrored flames of
the surrounding torchlight. “Well . . . if you demand . . .” He motioned
for another blindfolded victim to be brought from the back of the
chamber. The lamenting prisoner was dragged to Barbarossa’s feet by
two of the deputy judges, known as the Freischoffen. “Do you recognize
“I do,” Henry the Lion said. “His name is Burkhard. He is a faithful
servant, a worker in one of my stables. What could you possibly want
with him? He has broken none of the Vehmic laws.”
“I will ask him the same question I plan to ask you, Lion,” Barbarossa
said. He leaned over until he was face-to-face with the prisoner. “Where
is the relic?”
The man’s mouth fell open. He shook his head. “I don’t know what
you mean,” he said, pleading for his life.
“Where is the relic?” Barbarossa asked a second time.
“Please, emperor, I beg of you. I do not know!” The two Freischoffen
held the poor man fixed as he fought against his restraints.
“Let him go!” Henry the Lion said.
“Silence!” Barbarossa roared. He turned back to the prisoner, ripping
the blindfold away from the man’s eyes. “I will ask you only one more
time: Where is the relic?”
The prisoner closed his eyes, a visible wish for the blindfold to return.
“I do not know, your lordship.”
Barbarossa stepped aside. “Liar! You are commanded by the Holy
Court to approach the Virgin and kiss her feet.”
The prisoner seemed stunned. “I will be allowed to live?”
“Kiss the Virgin’s feet,” Barbarossa said. “Your fate is hers to decide.”
The prisoner trembled as he knelt before the Virgin. He glanced
around nervously, as if expecting a blade to promptly deliver his head
from his body. But no blade came. The man smiled and wept, bowing to
kiss the Virgin’s feet. As his lips touched the cold metal he felt a deep
groan from within her frame. He shrieked and jumped back, his face contorted
with fear. He would have bolted from the cave if the Freischoffen
hadn’t stopped him.
“The Virgin does not sound pleased,” Barbarossa said. He nodded to
Suddenly, through some unseen magic, a fissure running down the
front of the Virgin opened. Her two sides split wide, exposing the horror
within: an iron maiden—thick spikes, set at even intervals for maximum
“This man is innocent!” Henry the Lion cried.
“No man is innocent,” Barbarossa said. “Your turn will come soon
The Freischoffen dragged the thrashing prisoner forward and threw
him inside the terrible chamber. Before he could protest further, the
Freischoffen closed the statue. The prisoner could be heard screaming
Barbarossa turned to face the members of the Holy Court. “The Virgin
has declared her judgment! Let any man who opposes her speak now!”
The cavern fell silent, save for the cries of the pierced prisoner.
“So be it!” Barbarossa said. He advanced to the Virgin, head lowered, and placed his
hand upon the heart carved into her chest. He pressed the blessed symbol, and a grinding rumble emanated from beneath the floor. A moment later the cries of the prisoner vanished.
Barbarossa turned and raised his arms. “Behold! The Virgin’s judgment has come
swiftly today, my brothers!”
The Freischoffen threw open the Virgin. The interior was empty. The
flickering firelight revealed the only evidence of Burkhard’s short tenure
there—a dark, glistening stain of red.
“You will pay dearly for this,” Henry the Lion said as he watched the
hulking form of Barbarossa draw near.
“His life could have been spared,” Barbarossa growled under his breath. “As could
yours. Now, I ask you the same question: Where is the relic?”
Henry the Lion peered around at his brethren, hoping to find some
measure of support in their shadowy faces. But there was nothing save
their cold condemnation.
Barbarossa’s serpentine fingers curled around Henry’s neck. “Tell me
where you have hidden it, or I will spare you the Virgin’s wrath and
choke the life from you myself!”
Henry the Lion didn’t flinch. His countenance was as calm as the
evening waters of the Dead Sea, which he had viewed during his crusade
to the Holy Land almost a decade earlier. It was there that he first heard
about the relic the red giant now desired. But the relic was far more dangerous
than Barbarossa realized.
“Death would be too great a reward for the burden I carry,” Henry
the Lion said, his voice strained but steady. “Generations will pass before
the relic is found again. And to the one whose hand finally discovers its
holy power—God save him.”
August Adams could feel their eyes digging into his skull. He was on
their turf, and they wanted answers.
August massaged his temples with his fingers, trying to kick-start his
mind. He hadn’t slept a wink the night before. Now his brain felt like the
bowl of cold oatmeal he’d left lying on his kitchen counter.
“Mr. Adams, do you plan on saying anything?”
He glanced at the clock on the wall. Only five minutes had expired.
Could that be right? Five minutes? He could feel his heart pounding.
Another twenty-five minutes of this torture would kill him.
August squeezed his eyes shut and tried to focus, to forget the
news he’d heard last night, that horrible phone call he’d received just
before midnight. August, I’ve got something I need to tell you. Nothing good
started with those words. especially coming from his ex-wife, April.
August opened his eyes and stared into the quizzical face of his nineyear-
old son, Charlie. Sorry, he telepathed to him, wrinkling the small
expanse between his eyebrows for effect.
The boy shook his head, like a coach witnessing his star batter strike
out in the final game.
“Mr. Adams, would you mind explaining to the class exactly what a
August stared blankly at Charlie’s fourth-grade teacher. Her stern
expression reminded him of the reason he was here—Career Day.
Originally, Charlie had asked April’s boyfriend, Alex Pierson, to come
speak. But that arrangement changed in a hurry due to last night’s news.
“The term is archeobibliologist,” August said, snapping to attention.
“But I gave that up a long time ago.” He turned to his son. “I guess
Charlie forgot to tell you that.”
The class giggled. Was it funny? Not really. But the fact that he was
having a nervous meltdown right in front of them probably was. What kid
wouldn’t be amused by the sight of a grown-up completely losing it?
The teacher squatted down until she was level with August, who was
sitting on a pint-sized plastic chair. “Well, since you’re not an archeowhatever
anymore, maybe you can tell the class what you do for a living
now?” she said. “Please?”
August cleared his throat and adjusted his tie, which displayed the
thinner underneath tail extending two inches beyond the wider top layer.
He loosed it in an attempt to even things out, then finally took it off
altogether. The children giggled again. He considered telling them that
he was a clown. At least that would seem believable.
He scratched at the thick stubble that spread like a dark moss across his chin. “I buy and sell rare books,” he explained. “emphasis on the sell part.” This usually brought a chuckle from an adult audience. Instead, the class looked bored.
“Do you buy and sell comic books?” one boy asked, brushing aside
the dark, straight hair that covered his eyes.
“Occasionally,” August said, his musical crescendo in the middle of
the word implying that special circumstances had to surround the
“’Cause my dad has a comic book that he says is worth a lot of
August pondered this. “What comic book is it?”
The boy shrugged his husky shoulders. “I don’t know.”
“Have you seen it?”
“And you don’t remember?”
The teacher stepped in. “Mr. Adams, maybe it’s time you—”
“I remember!” the boy said, his smile pushing his face into a perfect
oval. “It had a picture of a guy like Superman. But it wasn’t Superman.”
August stood up. The entire class followed him with their eyes as he
approached the boy. “Think hard. Was it Captain Thunder?”
The boy’s jaw dropped, amazed at the mind reader. “I think that’s it!”
“You’re telling me your dad has a Flash Comics #1 ashcan?”
The boy’s face went blank.
“Never mind,” August said, letting him off the hook. He plucked a
business card from his pocket and jotted his private cell phone number
on the back. “Give this to your father. Tell him to talk to no one before
he talks to me. No one. Got it?”
The boy nodded emphatically.
“Good.” August returned to his undersized chair and nearly missed it
altogether, forgetting its humble height. The class laughed uncontrollably.
“Everyone!” the teacher said. “Let’s give Mr. Adams a big thank-you
before he leaves.”
“Seems a little early,” August said.
“We’ll fill the extra time,” the teacher said.
The kids were already clapping and saying their good-byes.
“I’ve got one more thing to show them before I go,” August pleaded
with the teacher. He looked over at Charlie, who had his head buried
under his hands. “Please?”
The teacher sighed. “You’re not going to try and sell someone a
book, are you?”
August set his briefcase on his lap and unclasped the front. He opened
the lid and lifted a large volume from the titanium-framed vessel, setting
it on his lap. “This isn’t a genuine rare book, but it’s an exact copy of
one,” he said. He slipped a thumb between two pages in the middle and
slowly pried the book open.
The children, seeing a brilliant glimmer emanating from the pages,
stood at their desks to get a better look. Ooohs and ahhhs fell from their
“Charlie,” August said. “Think you could help me out up here?”
Charlie rose from his seat, apprehensive at first, until he saw the looks
of envy that marred his classmates’ faces. He tried to keep from breaking
a smile as he joined his father at the front of the room.
“Thanks,” August said, putting a hand on his son’s back. “I want you
to hold up the book so everyone can see it.”
Charlie held out his arms, and August propped the book against his
chest like a human easel.
“It’s really heavy,” Charlie said.
August put a supporting hand on the underside of the book. “I’ve
got you covered,” he whispered. He turned to the class. “Has anyone
here ever heard of a guy named Henry the Lion?”
A pigtailed girl in the front row waved her hand. “He’s on Nickelodeon,
“I don’t think so,” August said. “Anyone else?”
The comic-book boy raised his hand.
“Just to warn you,” August said. “He’s not a superhero.”
The boy’s hand went back down.
“Henry the Lion,” August began, “was a famous warrior duke who
lived in the late 1100s. He was part of a powerful family known as the
Welf dynasty. Does anyone have a guess what Welf means?”
The pigtailed girl raised her hand again. She didn’t wait to be acknowledged.
“Is it like Belf?”
“Belf?” August repeated, not sure that he had heard her correctly.
“Like . . . like when a . . . um . . .”
August could tell she was clueless. Just a girl looking for some attention.
“Sorry, it’s not a belf. Anyone belf? I mean . . . anyone else?”
The class chuckled. The teacher chuckled too. He was beginning to
figure this crowd out.
A wafer-thin boy in the back raised his hand, but only halfway.
“You think you know the answer?” August asked.
“Is it an elf?” the boy asked, his voice shaking.
August smiled. It must have taken every fiber of the boy’s being to
venture an answer. “Not quite. But you’re on the right track playing
with some of the letters . . . you just chose the wrong ones.”
The timid little boy put his hands over his face. August thought he
was about to slip underneath his desk when he suddenly reappeared.
“You’re exactly right!” August said. “Welf means wolf!” He thought
the revelation would elicit a response. It didn’t. Fearing he’d lost their
attention altogether, August howled like he was baying at the moon. The
class erupted in delight.
The teacher calmed them down. “Mr. Adams,” she said. “Maybe you
can tell us about Henry the Lion’s relation to the book we’re all looking
“This book,” August said, flipping through the pages, “is called The
Gospels of Henry the Lion. Prince Henry and his wife, Matilda, ordered
its creation in the late 1100s. As you can see from the elaborate pictures
inside, it’s more than a book: It’s an amazing work of art. So amazing,
in fact, that Sotheby’s of London sold it at auction in 1983 for nearly
twelve million dollars. It would easily be worth three times that today.
And probably a lot more.”
Tiny sparks of astonishment could be heard exploding among the
August held his palm up to them. “This is just a copy!” he said, quelling
their enthusiasm. “You think I’d let you even look at this if it were the real
thing? No way! But don’t worry. You can look at this replica all day.”
The kids gathered en masse before the luminous book.
The teacher disrupted the chaos, ordering them to line up. She then
bent down for a closer look herself. “It’s a remarkable copy,” she said,
inspecting the pages.
“I agree. The best I’ve ever seen.”
“Are you sure it’s not real?”
August laughed. “That’s not possible. The real book is under high
surveillance, half a world away in Wolfenbuttel, Germany.”
“So where did you get this copy?”
“From my father,” August said. “He sent it to me for my birthday
yesterday. It was a great birthday. At least for the first twenty-three hours
and fifty-five minutes.”