The muttering of the guards ceased, and Shef, left leaning against a wall, his hands lashed to a bracket above him, tried to straighten up.
Then the Emperor was there in front of him, Erkenbert at his side.
They had not seen each other since the Braethraborg, though each had thought of the other every intervening day. Now they stared, to check their memories, to see what time had done.
The Emperor was hurt too, Shef realized, his harsh bleak face twitching from time to time with an involuntary pulse of pain. He smelled of blood and of burning, and the grooves in his face were deeper. The Emperor saw a man not yet thirty, with the white hair over the temples and the care-lines round the eyes of one twenty years older. Round his missing eyeball the flesh was shrunken, indrawn. He seemed in the last throes of weariness, held up only by the rope round his hands. Each man had spared the other’s life, once. Each recognized in the other the marks of decision and responsibility.
“You are an apostate and a rebel against God,” said Bruno.
“Not against God, your God or any other. Only against your Church. No priest is persecuted in England, no Christian harmed for being Christian.”
The Emperor’s voice sharpened. “You hid from me the Holy Grail. Tricked it from under my eyes.”
“I found you the Holy Lance. It would never have come to you without me.”
The Emperor seemed unsure what to say. The voice of Erkenbert the fanatic cut across his uncertainty.
“You have made false books and false gospels and sent them out across Christendom!”
“How do you know they are false?”
“You see!” said Erkenbert to his Emperor. “You are minded to forgive him even now, in your kindness. Think of this. Other heretics sin against the Faith, but this man—if man he is—he casts doubts on all faiths together. If he had his way all books would become mere words, to be turned this way and that. Treated like the oaths of a horse-dealer or the promises of a harlot.”
“Books are mere words,” said Shef faintly, his senses beginning to leave him. “Only you cannot ask a writer if he is telling the truth. Cannot look into his eyes.”
“He doubts the Word of God,” said Bruno firmly. “It is the sin against the Holy Ghost. How shall he die, Your Holiness?”
“This is Rome. Let us do as the Romans did and crucify him.”
“Does he deserve Our Savior’s death?”
“Saint Peter was crucified upside down, because he was not worthy to imitate his Lord. Nail this one with his hands over his head.”
Just don’t touch my foot, thought Shef. A futile thought. They would nail that too. He was putting more and more weight on the rope now, less and less on his one good leg. The sooner he fainted the better.
“Shall we do it where his men can see?” asked a voice somewhere off in the blackness that was closing in.
“No. No. Better that there is no story of this, that he should just disappear. Take him into a garden somewhere. Use the Grail-knights to guard him till he is dead.”
The rope round his wrists was slashed free, he stumbled, came down on his injured foot, and fell headlong. The Emperor looked after him as the knights dragged him away. “He might have been a great warrior for the Lord,” he said.
“Satan was once Lucifer, brightest angel in Heaven,” replied Erkenbert.
His hands were stretched out above him, his feet stretched out below. He had not felt the nail driven through both wrists. As soon as the iron point had touched his shattered ankle he had bitten deep into his lip to keep from screaming, but after the first blow he had felt nothing at all. The cunning soldiers had fixed a tiny ledge below his feet, no more than three inches out from the tree-trunk to which he was fastened, and on this he could rest his weight. Much of his weight. When his one foot would support him no more he would sag again from his wrists, feel the stifling pressure on his ribs. When he fainted the weight would fall again on his ankle, the pain stab him awake once more. As the sun rose towards noon, Shef drifted in and out of consciousness.