“Use your own shield, Brand!”
“Use the point, herra!”
“Stab him with the Lance!”
Erkenbert too thought that the moment of decision had come. In his own mind it was he who had determined the outcome on the day of the destruction of the Kingdom Oak at Uppsala, by his timely attack with the axe. When the time came for his hagiography to be written there must be something to mark his presence on this second day of the heathen’s destruction. Seizing the Grail banner from its holder, he stepped a pace forward from the crowd, lifted it high and shouted with all the force of his lungs, “In hoc signo vinces!”
Brand saw the Emperor respond to the cry, and for the first time caught his halberd-shaft in two hands. He blocked the blow at his head with a furious upward drive, took two paces forward at his retreating enemy, now backed once more almost to the enclosing ring, and unleashed a full-armed swing backhand at the body. Too high to jump, too low to duck, no room to dodge.
The Emperor stepped inside the blow and swung his razor-edged sword of finest Spanish steel not at the halberd, but at the wrist. For an instant the blow seemed to continue, the halberd-head met the Emperor’s shattered shield, knocked it and the Lance with it from his grasp. Then it was spinning on the ground, still clutched in a severed hand. Blood spouted instantly from Brand’s wrist, a deep groan rose from his supporters.
The Emperor dropped his sword-point, realized the shield was gone from his grip, turned anxiously to where the Holy Lance lay next to the severed hand. As he did so Brand stepped forward again, right arm trailing helplessly. On his left he still had the small shield strapped, the shield he had never yet used. Fist clenched, he swept the left arm down in a chopping blow. The thick edge of the shield met the Emperor’s neck as he stooped to pick up his talisman. The snap of breaking bone echoed clearly between the walls. Then, in dead silence, the Emperor fell forward on his face, his head at an impossible angle.
Brand stooped instantly, twitched the Holy Lance away from the dead left hand. A dozen Lanzenritter moved forward automatically, hands groping for their holy relic. Brand stepped away as his own men crowded forward, turned towards them and with his left hand threw the Lance up and over the wall, the dropping sun catching its gold-inlaid crosses with a last flash of light.
“Your God has failed you!” he shouted as hands gripped his arm, began to twist a cord round the wrist.
Some of the Ritters understood the words, some did not. All felt the same superstitious horror. They would not fight now. They needed to understand first. Knights and brothers alike, they fell back into the alleyways up which they had come, meaning only to retrieve their horses and flee the ill-omened city.
Two of them, Tasso the Bavarian and Jopp the Burgundian, delayed long enough to seize their Emperor’s body from the ground. Tasso slung it over his shoulder, Jopp drew his sword and backed away as a rearguard against any rush from the enemy. As he backed away he saw the Grail banner still stuck in the ground. Where is the little deacon, the one our master made Pope? he thought in rage and despair. He has deserted him, he and his false sign! He hacked at the banner’s shaft, sent it tumbling with the last light to earth.
Shef knew he was dying now, the dark was all around him. He did not know if it was night or his one eye failing him. He could hear still. There was a voice calling out of the darkness, a voice he had heard first many years before, in York, the day of Ragnar’s death when his own true life had started. It was Erkenbert’s voice, and it was calling out, “The Emperor is dead!” Now how could that have happened?
A confusion of voices below him. His mind was perfectly clear now at the last, and he could understand what they said, but he paid little attention. The Grail-knights were arguing, unable to believe that their holy cause and leader had failed. Then there were accusations of treachery and betrayal, a scuffle over the golden case in which the Grail had been kept, blows struck. He did not know who won.