King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 23, 24, 25, 26

His face set, Erkenbert began to skim the book’s pages. The Latin it was written in caused him no difficulty, though for an instant or two his lip curled in contempt of its barbaric style. Then his face seemed to set even harder and grimmer. He had come to the claim that Christ survived. Did not die. Did not rise again. Fled, married, raised children. Abjured his faith.

Abjured his faith.

“Have you read this book?” asked Erkenbert quietly.

“No. Never.”

“You are lying. You knew it told a different story. Sieghart! What have you done with the men who were hanged in the shed?”

“Dug a grave. Waiting for a priest to say the burial service over them. Some might have been good Catholics.”

“There will be no burial service. Some were assuredly heretics. Heretics so vile they deserve no burial, if it were not for the stench they leave in the nostrils. But the stench of these books is greater. Before you fill in the grave, Sieghart, throw these in. Let them not go to clean flame, but lie and corrupt with the corruption of their authors. And Sieghart…”

The two men’s eyes met, a faint nod. Sieghart freed his dagger noiselessly, mouthed the word “Now?” Another nod. Catching some hint of what was meant, Richier struggled forward to the knees of the deacon, babbling still, “I brought you the graal, I deserve a reward…”

The dagger sank from behind into the base of his skull. “You have your reward,” said Erkenbert to the face-down sprawling figure. “I released you from fear. You did not deserve shrift and salvation. Worse than Pelagius, worse than Arius. They brought false belief, but you… you would have left Christians with no belief at all. Do not open that book, Sieghart, on your soul’s salvation.”

“That’s all right, magister,” said Sieghart amiably. “I can’t read.”

“Reading is for the wise alone,” confirmed Erkenbert.

Two days later and thirty miles to the south across the mountain passes, Erkenbert timed his entry to the Emperor’s banquet with precision. For three successive nights the Emperor had remained on the field of battle, resting his men, burying the dead, dividing the loot of the Caliph’s baggage train, and hearing the priests of his army sing the Te Deum laudamus from behind an altar built of captured weapons. Now, inside the great pavilion, its inner hangings torn away so that all could banquet where once the Caliph’s harem had been kept, he sat at the head of the high table.

Erkenbert walked slowly in to face him, six Lanzenritter pacing gravely behind him, their armor polished to an unearthly gleam. The Emperor’s minstrels ceased their playing, the servers and wine-pourers, recognizing the gravity of the scene, stood back against the silken walls. The Emperor too caught the signs of ceremonial, of vital portent. His face paled as hope seized his heart. He rose to his feet, and all speech stopped instantly.

Erkenbert said nothing, continued walking forward. Then he stopped, turned away as if self-effacingly, an icon of Christian humility with his slight frame and dull black robe. He raised a hand to Sieghart.

Swelling with pride, the Ritter drew aside the elaborate altar-cloth with which he had hidden the graduale, passed it to his second-in-command. Silently he held the wooden pole-ladder at arm’s length above his head, like a battle-standard.

“Is that it, is that the…” the Emperor began.

“It is the ladder of Joseph of Arimathea, on which our Lord’s body was carried to the Holy Sepulchre,” cried out Erkenbert at the full force of his lungs. “From which He rose again the third day, according to the Scriptures! According to the Apostles’ Creed! Let all see it and know their faith confirmed.”

The Emperor dropped instantly to one knee, followed in moments by every other man and woman in the pavilion, except for Sieghart, standing like a resplendent statue.

Finally Sieghart lowered the graduale gently to the earth, and as if by compensating machinery, the Emperor and his following rose. Bruno held out a hand. Sieghart stepped forward and placed the Grail in it. With his other hand Bruno brought Grail and Lance together.

“Death and life,” he muttered, tears running from his eyes. “Life in death. But Erkenbert… It is bare wood.”

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