King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 19, 20, 21, 22

“And once we get to the ships?”

“Out to sea as fast as Hagbarth can rig sail.”

The groups dissolved as Anselm and Cwicca began to call orders. Shef walked over, sat wearily by the edge of the village well, groping for the dipper he had thrown to the ground only two days before. After a few moments he found Svandis, her ragged white dress now stitched into respectability, by his side.

“So,” she said. “What has the heretic God given you for the boys’ lives? A wooden ladder? Or have you and the old fool just thrown them away for nothing?”

Shef wondered dimly why people felt they were helping by asking that kind of question. As if he had not thought of it already. For if there was no such thing as a god, as Svandis insistently proclaimed, yes, the whole thing had been pointless. Anselm was approaching, having given his instructions. He knelt down before the younger man.

“You saved our relic and we should give you our thanks.”

“I saved it because you stole her. I think you still owe me something.”

Anselm hesitated. “Gold?”

Shef shook his head. “Knowledge.”

“We have told you everything we know about fire.”

“Besides the gold, and the Grail, we brought out books. The true gospels, Richier said. Why have you not given them to the world, as the Christians do with theirs?”

“We believe knowledge is only for the wise.”

“Well, maybe I am wise enough. Give me one of your books. The Jews, and the Christians, and the Mohammedans, they all laugh at us Waymen and say we are not People of the Book. So give me one of your books, the one with the true teaching of Jesus in it. Maybe after that people will take us more seriously.”

It is only for initiates, Anselm thought. The teaching not only must be read, it must be explained so that the ignorant do not understand it wrongly. We have only three copies, and are forbidden by our law to make any more. The barbarian king has thirty men here, armed with strange weapons. He could take them all and the graal as well, if he had a mind. We killed his boys. Best not to provoke him.

“I will bring you a copy,” said Anselm reluctantly. “But will you be able to read it?”

“If I cannot, Solomon can. Or Skaldfinn.” Shef thought of a saying in his own tongue. “Truth can make itself known.”

What is truth? thought Anselm, remembering the saying of Pilate in the gospel of the Christians. But he did not dare to speak the words.

“So we lost the da—the holy thing, when it was right under our noses,” snarled the Emperor. He had passed a tense night, disturbed not by the screaming from the tent where Erkenbert did his work, but by his own thoughts. All the morning after he had been pursued by reports of failure and desertion, his levies scattered half way across the county by fear and confusion.

“Yes,” replied the black deacon. He did not fear the Emperor’s moods. He knew that even in the worst of them the Emperor retained an ability to see things fairly. That was why his men loved him.

“All right. Tell me the worst.”

“The thing, the holy graal as the boy calls it, was here, deep down. We had almost reached it. Your rival the One King was here as well. The boy described him unmistakably. The lights in the sky—they were as I said, a distraction only.”

The Emperor nodded. “I have not forgotten my promise, and Wulfhere’s see is still vacant. Go on.”

“They worked. While the sentries were engaged with frightened Frenchmen they got in through some secret passage. Retrieved the relics of their heretic faith, including the graduale—and it is a ladder, just as you supposed. The boy does not know why it is holy.”

“How did they get out?”

“The boy did not, of course. He panicked, was caught by our alerted sentries.”

The Emperor nodded again, resolving internally not to punish Wolfram and his men, as he had originally intended. The distraction was not their fault, for it was not they who had responded to it, or at least no more than he had himself. And they had been alert enough on the return.

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