“Greater is work than the naked word,” replied Shef in his mind, quoting the English proverb.
“That is true. And so you may be forgiven. What you have done may make the words pass away, lose their authority, the authority no-one would grant their authors, mere men as they were. The authority that comes from faith—that may remain. Those who wish to believe in the salvation of the Christians, in the shari’a of Islam, in the Law of the Jews—that is still open to them. But they may not tell people that their words are holy, not to be challenged. Every interpretation may be challenged. You showed your friend Thorvin that. Your friend Svandis showed you that. There is truth in the Word, but not a single truth.”
“Can I believe in your word?” Shef tried to say to the fading figure. “Is there truth in my visions?”
“Ask Farman,” said the king’s voice in a shrill receding pipe. “Ask Farman.”
He’s by the ships, Shef thought. By the water. Is there any water here? The sun is on the side of my face now. He tried to call to the knights guarding him, for water or for death, but his voice came out only as a rusty croak like a crow’s.
The knights were talking, they did not hear him.
“If he does not break them this time, they will break him.”
“He will break them.”
“The Italians are gathering to defend their anti-Pope.”
A bark of laughter. “The Italians!”
“They say an Arab fleet has been sighted…”
“The Greeks will sink it. Where is your faith?”
A silence. The doubtful voice said, “I wish we could fight with the Emperor.”
“We are here to guard the Grail. And this heretic here.”
“Who from?” muttered the doubter.
Shef knew he was near death now, and thirst had ceased to bother him. What did he wish? That he could see Godive again? No, she would live and die happily, as far away from him as King Edmund. That he might see the child he and Svandis would have? If the child was born, with such a mother it needed no father to protect it. He wished he had not struck Cwicca. He wished he could see the Wisdom House again, and what Udd had made in another peaceful summer.
He could not see the Wisdom House, but he could see the Head of it, Farman Frey’s priest. Strange. He had seen other men he knew before in visions, but only one man had ever seen him, responded to him as if he had been there, and that had been Farman in the smithy of the gods. Now he was there again, talking urgently.
“Where are you?”
“I don’t know. In a garden somewhere.”
“Rome is to the east of you,” said Farman. “The aqueduct is to the south. Look at the shadows.
Shef opened his eye, saw the shadow of the tree he hung on stretching away, quite long now. If he had his beads and wire he could calculate, could calculate…
“That will do. That will do.
Shef’s foot slipped from the little ledge, provided not in mercy but to prolong the agony of dying. His weight came on his wrists, on his ruined ankle. This time the pain did not wake him but sent him mercifully down below any level of consciousness at all.
The Emperor massed his remaining troops beneath the stair from which he had been pulled earlier that day. There was no attempt at concealment or surprise this time. It was like the game the soldiers played. Two men sat each side of a table, gripped hands, and each tried to push the other’s arm down. A test of strength, a test, between evenly-matched men, of will. When the soldiers did it and they were drunk enough, they hammered nails up through the table to impale the wrist of the loser. That was a great improver of the will. And that was how things stood now. The whole day had been full of rumors and sudden panics: the Italians had risen, there was an Arab fleet at the coast, the pagan king had escaped with magic wings to bring up a new army. None of that mattered. The pagan king was dead, or soon would be. His army would be destroyed before sundown. After that Bruno was ready to fall back into the hills, retreat all the way to Germany before he gathered strength and returned. But he would leave no unfinished business, no center to grow a legend of victory.