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

The best of his advisers looked thoughtful, Bruno realized. For Georgios there might be reason enough. But Agilulf too… His spirits rose in perverse opposition to their mood.

“All right,” he said. “They caught us unawares down at Ostia. We are still having a little trouble with the city scum. Pope John keeps escaping my hand. Now, listen. None of that matters. Does it, Erkenbert, Your Holiness? Remember what Arno the chaplain used to say. You have to find the Schwerpunkt in any campaign, the bit that is important. There is only one thing important here, only one thing that has ever been important now that we have the Grail. That is to defeat my enemy the One King once and for all. If we do that, everything becomes easy. The city will be under control in a week. John will be brought in by some traitor. The fleet can be rebuilt. But if we don’t do it…”

“All the others will be on our backs,” summed up Agilulf, “and we will fall apart too.” He said the last words with a sideways squint at Georgios. Agilulf had not forgotten who had lashed him and his men with fire, nor believed Georgios’s explanation of an unfortunate accident.

“But we will do it,” said Erkenbert. Pope Peter II, as he now styled himself. He had not yet shed his faded black robe, traded it for Papal robes. The true regalia had not been recovered, nor had his accession to the apostolic throne been anything but a rushed and irregular affair, attended by a bare third of the College of Cardinals. Yet the Emperor was right. The Cardinals could be convened again, the regalia recovered or remade. Given victory.

“I am ready to put the papacy aside and return to my duties as comrade in the army of the Emperor,” Erkenbert went on. “War-wolf’s successors are ready. They will take the field as soon as ordered.”

“How can we use a siege-train against a marching army?” asked Agilulf.

“Who knows?” replied the Emperor. “We are not facing an ordinary man, never forget that, any of you. He has tricked every enemy he has faced. Tricked me, even. But he did not trick me out of the Grail, in the end. We must be as tricky as he is. Thank you, Your Holiness. If every man in my army had your heart, victory would be assured.”

“Victory is assured,” said Erkenbert. “In hoc signo vinces, in this sign you will conquer.” Through the broken window of the plundered villa he pointed to the banner with its device of the graduale worked on it, planted above the golden reliquary that now housed the Grail itself. Four Ritters stood forever around it, fully armed, swords drawn, emblems of the new Church Militant and the Donation of Peter.

That is the enemy’s sign too, thought Agilulf. Two sides with the same sign. Two clever leaders. Two, maybe three thousand real men on each side, and God knows how many dross as well on ours. This is a battle it will take very little to decide.

The Wayman army tramped steadily along the great stone road that led from the port to the City of Rome itself, center of the world. The men’s cries of mirth and astonishment had died as the march continued, their spirits dashed by the immense size of the stone blocks that lined the road, the stone houses on every hillside, the air that the country wore of great age and strength long gone by. They had seen Stamford, and it was a mere village in comparison. They had seen Cordova too, and it was no village but a metropolis that dwarfed even Rome for numbers and trade and wealth. Cordova, though, had been a village while Rome ruled the world. There was a sense that every spade turned in this land would bring up the dust of greatness.

The men were bunching in their nervousness, Shef thought. He had sent a hundred Vikings forward under Guthmund, always eager to be first to any chance of loot. He had meant them to keep off the road, investigate the side ways for ambush. There were too many hedges, too many walls. In the strong sunlight they had reverted to the middle of the road, were walking along in an armed gaggle a mere hundred yards before the crossbows escorting his catapult-train. When the sun had moved another hand’s breadth he would call a rest halt, change the formation.

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