“The blow was struck. It went astray.” The perfectus considered the strange certainty of the man who faced him, went on, “It may be that crucified men, men kept upright with their arms above their heads, that they stand oddly, their hearts shift. It is strange that water ran out of the wound. Maybe Longinus pierced some other vessel. But when Joseph and Nicodemus went after the Passover to the tomb they had made, to embalm the body: they found the Christ alive. Still wrapped in his shroud.”
It was Shef’s turn to think, to recognize a kind of truth. Ten nights before he had dreamed another dream, of the man waking from the dead with his arms bound to his sides and pain in his heart, a dream of horror. But it could have happened. He had known men to recover on the battlefield as their comrades prepared to throw them in the pit, it had happened to Brand himself. And Brand too had recovered from a deep belly wound. It did not happen often, but it could.
“What happened then?”
“They told a trusted few the truth. But soon the story spread that they find in the Gospels, that the tomb was empty, that an angel had appeared. That Christ had gone down to Hell to rescue the patriarchs and the prophets. The Christians say that story came from Nicodemus, for he was known to have had speech with Christ after his taking down from the cross. They read that story to this day in their false gospel of Nicodemus. But it is not true.
“The Christ did not die. Nor did he go back to his followers. They nursed him back to life, Joseph and Nicodemus and the woman they call Mary Magdalene. Then, secretly, Nicodemus the rich sold his goods, as did Joseph of Arimathea, and they and Jesus and Mary came here to this country. They left Palestine to the Jews and the Romans to fight over and came to the other end of the Inner Sea, but still within the old imperium of the Romans.
“Here they lived. Here they died. Here they bore their children, Jesus’s children by Mary. And their seed is not yet dead. For we here, the people of the mountains, we can trace our blood back to him. And that is why we are the Sons of God!”
His voice rose in triumph on the last words, and the men sitting round him echoed them.
Yes, Shef thought. That is a tale the Christians would not like told. There is a great gap in it, for if the Jesus they claim descent from was merely another mortal, why should they call themselves the Sons of God, or believe in him? They have good reason not to. But they will have an explanation for that, just like Thorvin or Farman. Believers always do.
“What then do you want from me?” he asked quietly.
“The Graal. We kept it. It is in the deepest depths of Puigpunyent. But the Emperor knows it is there, has men digging for it every day. Soon, we fear, he will find it, and our holy treasures and testaments with it. And he will destroy them utterly, and the proof of our knowledge with them. We have to get them out. The Grail and the writings. Or drive the Emperor away. You—you came into our country with our holy sign around your neck, you passed the tests of our mystery without aid or prompting, some of us say that you are the holy Nicodemus risen again! We ask you to aid us.”
Shef scratched his beard. It was an interesting story. More interesting would be the way out. He was still in the power of these fanatics. “I am no Nicodemus,” he said. “But tell me. If I can do what you ask—and I see no way to—then what can you do for me? Your beliefs are not my beliefs, and your fear is not my fear. What is the price? And you must know that I am already a rich man.”
“Rich in gold. They tell us though that you search continually for knowledge, that you and your men try continually to fly, to do what has never been done before. They tell us that you search for the secret of the Greek fire.”