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

“Even the Lance brings me no comfort,” he went on. “The virtue has gone out of me. I have angered God.”

The two bodyguards standing at the entrance to the tent, stifling at the end of the long Catalan summer’s day, looked at each other uneasily, then at the fourth man in the room, the deacon Erkenbert, mixing wine and water with his face turned down.

“Angered God, herra?” asked Jopp uncertainly, the bolder and duller of the two. “You eat fish on Fridays. God knows—I mean we know you don’t have no women in here, though if you wanted to there’s plenty…”

His comrade trod firmly on his foot with a hobnailed boot, and Jopp’s voice trailed into silence.

Bruno’s face showed not even amusement, his voice continued wearily. “The Greek fire failed. Forty good brothers dead or missing, and Agilulf pulled out of the sea half-roasted.” A spark of animation showed, he straightened for a moment. “It’s my belief those Greek bastards flamed him with the rest, because he was in the way. But still,” he sank back again, “we lost. The admiral won’t try again, keeps wailing about his lost projector.

“And ‘War-Wolf’ smashed. The gate not down. I do not blame you, Erkenbert, but you have to admit, there was something devilish about the way they hit with the second shot. You would have thought God would send His servants something. If they were His true servants. I fear I am not. Not any more.”

Erkenbert did not look up, continued to pour one flask into another as if absorbed. “Are there any other signs, O imperator, that God has turned his back on you?”

“Too many. Deserters keep coming in. Men who say they were Christians, converted to the worship of Mohammed by force. We make them eat the bacon, then test what they say. They all say the same. The Arab army barely the other side of the hill, led by the Caliph in person, er-Rahman. Tens of thousands, they say. Hundreds of thousands, they say. All those who resist the will of the Caliph are impaled.

“And the worst of all you know, O deacon. No word of the Holy Grail, the ladder of life to go with the lance of the holy death. How many men have we sent to death in the search for it? Sometimes their screams come to me in my sleep. That boy, the one who had seen it, you tortured him till he died. And the child, the fair child who fell in flame from the skies. They should have lived many years yet, but they died. And for nothing. For nothing…”

The Emperor sagged back further, his long arms trailing on the ground, his eyes closed.

His metal gauntlets lay on the table in front of him. Moving carefully, Erkenbert the deacon stepped across, seized one of them, weighed it in his hand, and then swung it with all his scrawny force across the face of the defenseless Emperor. Blood spurted instantly from the broken nose. As the bodyguards reached reflexively for their hilts, Erkenbert found himself whirled off his feet, back stretched over the table, a forearm like oak and wire cutting off the breath in his throat, and a dagger-tip already poised an inch from his eyeball.

Slowly the pressure relaxed, the Emperor straightened up, hauling his counselor with him.

“Stay back, boys. Now, what the Hell did you do that for?”

No glimpse of fear showed in the pale face glaring up at him. “I struck you because you are a traitor to God. God has sent you to carry out His purposes. Whatever those purposes may be! And you, you fall into the sin of despair! You are no better than a suicide, who kills himself because he fears what God may send. Except in one way. You have time yet to make amends. Down on your knees, Emperor that should be, and beg forgiveness from the All-Highest!”

Slowly the Emperor sank down, dagger falling from his hand, and began to mutter the Lord’s Prayer through the flow of blood from his nose. Erkenbert let him finish.

“Enough! For now. Confess this to your confessor. Now hold still.” The deacon stepped forward, took careful hold of the broken septum, aligned it carefully, ran a finger along the top to check. The Emperor remained motionless, as he did under his own many private penances.

Page: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29

Categories: Harrison, Harry