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

“He cannot say how the rest got out. But there was one thing he tried not to tell us. It came out in the end.” Erkenbert hesitated. The Emperor was a fair man, but this was humiliation. “In the end the boy was persuaded to talk because he realized that his talking made no difference. The others were out already. He saw them walk past us.”

The Emperor blinked, straightened out of his cavalryman’s slouch on the camp stool. “He didn’t walk past me. No one-eyed man ever does without me having a very close look at him.”

Erkenbert looked at the ground. “They had tied him to the graduale, so it looked like a stretcher. You told Tasso to kick them through the gate yourself.”

A long silence. Eventually Erkenbert looked up. Was the Emperor meditating one of his own brutal self-imposed penances? He was staring at the point of his sword. “I had him there,” he muttered. “On the end of it like a virgin about to squawk. All I had to do was push it home. And I didn’t. I tell you, Erkenbert, this kind heart of mine will be the ruin of me yet, my mother always used to say so.”

He grinned. “So they got past us. Up into the hills, no doubt. We shall just have to chase them. And all the damned cavalry deserted, or lost, or gone off to water their damned horses or something. But I’ll have it yet. All right, Erkenbert, go find me someone with local knowledge.”

The little deacon sat unmoving. “Your pardon, lord, but think again. The graduale, no doubt that is deep in the hills and it may take a deal of finding. But is that the most important thing now? Your countryman, the chaplain Arno, now in service with the Pope, he taught me always in a campaign to look for the Schwerpunkt, the vital point of attack or defense. I do not think it is in the mountains. I think it is where the One King is. Or where he will be.”

He keeps using that title today, mused Bruno. Trying to needle me, I have no doubt. It’s working too. “All right. Where is he, then, King Shef, the Victorious? As they call him. When they think I’m not listening.”

Erkenbert shrugged. “Where all pirates always are. With his ships. In the port of Septimania. In the city of the Jews.”

Bruno’s eyes glittered a little more dangerously. “Heretics and Jews. Heathens and apostates. God sent his Son to bleed and die for them and they cannot so much as say ‘thank you.’ I prefer the damned Moors, at least they believe in something. And we know the ships are in Septimania, because Georgios saw them. Can we be sure they will stay there?”

“Georgios is on the watch.”

“But if they have a wind he can’t stop them, they’ll just batter his galleys to pieces at long range, he said so himself.”

Erkenbert looked down. “I have—taken certain steps to change that situation, lord. I gave the orders in your name, to save time. I was not asleep, after all, at the battle at the Braethraborg, against the heathen Danes.”

The Emperor reached out, patted the little man on the shoulder with careful affection. “Don’t do too much for me, comrade, or I shall have to make you Pope. And the damned Italian’s not dead yet. Though that can be arranged.”

Without seeming to move he was on his feet, yelling for his horse, his helmet, and Agilulf. In seconds he was outside, hand on the pommel of the high Frankish saddle of his war-horse. Without touching the stirrup he vaulted into the saddle, jerked his long sword into a more comfortable position, caught the helmet tossed to him and slung it over his saddlebow.

“Where are you going?” shouted Erkenbert.

“To the funeral.”

“Of the men who died last night?”

“No. Of the child who fell from the skies. He had a hammer round his neck, so he cannot go in a consecrated grave, but I have had one dug for him. And a stone cut in the night. It says, Der erste Luftreiter, ‘first rider of the skies.’ That is a great honor, is it not?”

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Categories: Harrison, Harry