King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 31, 32, 33, 34

Some time later he realized that the clearing, now perfectly dark, was empty. His guards had gone. They should have stabbed him before they left, shouldn’t they? Not quite empty. He opened his eye, saw a figure standing at the foot of his tree-trunk. Somehow he had got his foot back on the little ledge that had kept him alive so long, he could see and think. It was Erkenbert the deacon, he recognized the tonsure and the black robe. The little man had found a spear from somewhere, was poising it inexpertly, about to stab him under the ribs as the German centurion had done to Christ, long ago in his vision by the Norwegian fjord.

“False prophet!” hissed the voice from below. “False Messiah!”

There were other shapes behind Erkenbert in the gloom. Hund and Svandis, well ahead of the rest of the Waymen now grouping and marching out of the city under Cwicca’s urgings to rescue their leader, had heard the commotion round the Grail and crept up through the groves and gardens to see what it was. Hund carried no weapon, Svandis only the long pin that fastened up her hair. It was enough for a descendant of Ragnar and of Ivar. As the sometime-deacon braced for a two-handed thrust, the thin point drove between his vertebrae. He fell forward at the foot of the tree.

“How do we get him down?” asked Hund.

She pointed silently at the old wooden graduale, used long before for a similar purpose, now thrown aside as a betrayal by the furious knights who had looted its casings.

Hund propped it against the tree, climbed up, struggled with the long nail through both wrists, well above Shef’s head and his own.

“I need tools,” he said. “Thorvin will have some.”

“I have what you need,” said another voice. Svandis sprang round, pin out. Two more figures had drifted out of the gloom. To her surprise she recognized Farman the visionary-priest, whom she had thought still at the ships, and Solomon the Jew, who had vanished in the fighting the previous night.

“I met Solomon on the road,” said Farman. “He saw much of what happened today from hiding. But I already knew your man was here, and what they had done to him. Not all vision comes from the mind, Svandis. Here, I have pliers ready.”

After a few minutes of grunting struggle Shef was stretched on the ground, Hund listening to his heartbeat, pouring water onto the cracked lips. Sniffing at the blackened wounds in the crushed and swollen feet.

“I will go for Thorvin and the others,” said Svandis. “He needs shelter and protection.”

Farman blocked her with a raised hand. “He does. But not from Thorvin. Not from the Way. If he were nursed back to power and kingship now, think what they would say. The one-eyed king, crucified outside the city wall, the lame smith, brought back from the dead. They would make him a god.

“No. Let him go into the dark now, and let the world have rest. He has set the world on its new path, and that is enough.”

“You mean to leave him to die?”

“Let me have him,” said Hund from the ground. “We were friends long ago. He often spoke of having a hut somewhere in the fen, where he could trap eels and grow barley and live in peace. If he lives, I will take him back to the fen. I do not think he will live through what I shall have to do, but he may.”

“Norfolk fens are a thousand miles away!” cried Svandis.

“Septimania is not so far,” said Solomon. “I can hide him there, for a while. My people have no wish for any more Messiahs to trouble the world.”

“The three of you, take him,” said Farman. “He has the gold on his arms still, and here is more from the ships.” He dropped a bag on the ground. “Hide here till the Emperor’s men are all gone, and ours, and the natives of the place return. If he lives, take him home, but do not let him be seen again. The Way needs him no more.”

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