The Secret of Excalibur


For my family and friends



The little church watched over the village of San Maggiori as it had every sunset for seven centuries. The dusty road up from the village was steep and winding, but the local faithful were proud enough of their place of worship and its long history not to complain about the trek. At least, not too frequently.

Father Lorenzo Cardella was the most proud of the church. He knew pride was technically a sin, but this place belonged to God, and surely even the Creator would allow Himself a moment to appreciate it. Modest in appearance and size, it had for all that withstood weather and wars, invaders and insurgents, since the days of the Holy Roman Empire. God, the priest mused, clearly liked it enough to keep around.

He took a last moment to appreciate the splendour of the setting sun before turning to the church’s time- scoured oak doors. He was about to lock them when he heard the slithering crunch of a vehicle coming round the road’s final hairpin. A large black SUV pulled itself through the turn, tyres scrabbling for traction even with four- wheel drive.

He suppressed a sigh. The truck - American, he guessed, from its sheer bulk and gaudy chrome - had a foreign registration plate. The idea that churches had opening hours just like any place of business always seemed to escape tourists, who treated the world as their own personal amusement park. Well, this group would have to go away disappointed.

The truck rumbled to a standstill. Father Cardella put on a polite face and waited for its occupants to emerge. The windows were tinted so darkly that he couldn’t even tell how many people were inside. He held back another sigh. Who did they think they were, Hollywood stars?

The doors opened.

Definitely not Hollywood stars. While Father Cardella didn’t want to be uncharitable, he couldn’t help thinking it had been a long time since he’d seen such a concentration of ugliness. First out was the driver, a shaven-headed man with a sallow, almost sickly complexion. He had the look of a soldier - or a convict. From the other side emerged a giant, a mass of muscle unfolding himself with difficulty even from this oversized vehicle’s interior. His wiry beard failed to camouflage a face pock-marked with scars, the biggest a gnarled knot of skin in the centre of his forehead. Whatever injury he had sustained there, he had been lucky to survive it.

The third person to exit was a woman, whom Father Cardella would have considered attractive if not for her hard, scowling expression and lurid blue-dyed hair, which seemed to have been more hacked than cut as if she had done it herself using a knife, without the aid of a mirror. She quickly turned in a full circle, eyes scanning the surrounding landscape before locking on to him with an uncomfortable intensity.

For a moment the three stood still, regarding him. Then the woman tapped twice on the SUV’s window. The last occupant emerged.

He was older than the others, close-cropped hair grey, but had the same hardness to him, an armour forged by the batterings of a brutal life. Somehow, Father Cardella could tell this man was used to treating others as he had been treated himself. His nervousness increased as the man strode towards him, the others automatically falling in step behind like soldiers on the march. He backed up slightly, one hand reaching for the door handle. ‘Can . . . can I help you?’

The leader’s broad, almost frog-like mouth unexpectedly broke into a smile, though his piercing blue eyes remained as cold as ever. ‘Good evening. This is the church of San Maggiori, yes?’ His Italian was reasonably good, but he had a strong accent - Russian, the priest thought.

‘It is.’

‘Good.’ The man nodded. ‘My name is Aleksey Kruglov. We have come to see your . . .’ He paused, frowning briefly as he struggled to find the right word. ‘Your reliquary,’ he finished.

‘I’m afraid the church is closed for the night,’ Father Cardella told him, still with one hand on the door handle. ‘It will open again at ten o’clock tomorrow morning. I can show you round then, if you like?’

The humourless smile returned. ‘That is not convenient for us. We want to see it now.’

Masking his rising concern with dismissiveness, Father Cardella opened the door and backed through it. ‘I’m sorry, but the church is closed. Unless you want to make a confession?’ he added, the words coming out unbidden in a failed attempt at levity.

To his horror, Kruglov’s smile became genuine, a sadistic leer. ‘Sorry, Father, but even God would be shocked by everything I have to confess.’ His hand jabbed forward in a signal for action.

Father Cardella threw the door shut, closing the bolt as someone slammed against the wood. He leaned against the oak to hold it shut as he fought rising panic, trying to think. His mobile phone was in his small study at the back of the church; help from the village could be here in minutes—

Another blow to the door, so hard that Father Cardella was thrown to the ground as the bolt sheared in half. A gnarled, plate-sized hand reached around the edge to shove the door wider.

He kicked as hard as he could. The door crashed shut, smashing the hand against the frame. A low gasp came from outside, an intake of breath. He waited for the scream of pain.

It didn’t come. Instead, he heard laughter.

He scrambled upright. Stumbling down the aisle, he looked back to see the huge man almost filling the doorway, bared teeth glinting in a demented smile.

Outside, the woman yelled something in Russian. Father Cardella raced desperately for his study.

‘Get out of the way, Bulldozer !’ shouted the blue-haired woman. ‘And stop laughing, you retard!’

‘That felt good!’ growled the giant, ignoring her insult. He stepped back, examining his hand. A gash had been torn across its back, blood matting the thick hair covering it. ‘Ha! The old man kicks like a donkey!’

Kruglov clicked his fingers impatiently. ‘Dominika, Yosarin, get the priest.’ He gestured to the giant. ‘Maximov, come with me.’ The woman and the shaven-headed man nodded obediently and ran into the church.

Maximov wiped the blood from the back of his hand with a final grunt of pleasure. ‘Where are we going, boss?’

‘The reliquary. If the German’s research was right, what we want is in there.’ He gestured through the door. Maximov grunted again, this time in acknowledgement, and ducked to go inside. Kruglov followed.

The priest had reached a door at the far end of the church, and slammed it shut. Kruglov frowned. Either he meant to barricade himself inside until help arrived, or . . . ‘Dominika, if he gets outside, stop him,’ he called, new strategies instantly clicking into place inside his head. ‘Maximov, break the door down.’

Dominika turned and ran back the way she had come as Yosarin reached the other door. As Kruglov had expected, it was locked from inside. Maximov broke into a lumbering run down the aisle and barged into the wood shoulder-first. It was far less solid than the sturdy oak at the church’s entrance - the force of the impact ripped it clean off its hinges. Man and door ploughed into Father Cardella’s desk, tipping it over and spilling its contents across the floor.

Yosarin ran in after him, just in time to see the frightened priest scurry through another door at the rear of

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