King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 5, 6, 7

“And then, as you can see”—Bruno waved again at the heavily-armed men waiting in ranks out of arrow-shot, “the heroes of the Lanzenorden stand ready to go in and finish the job.”

“And us with them,” said one of the Spanish barons, a scarred veteran.

“But certainly!” cried Bruno, “and me too! Why, it’s all I come for!” He winked roguishly. “One decision we all have to make, though. My lads wear their mail, after all, they have to do this twice a week. But those of us who just have a chance now and then, why, we may think it better to go in light-armed. I only wear padded leather myself, it gives me a little more speed, and the Arabs wear no armor either. To tell the truth, I find it more like rat-catching than fighting a battle. But that is because we have found the trick of burning the rats out.”

He beamed cheerfully at his secretarius, now supervising the winching up of the bucket-arm of his trebuchet, preparatory to filling it with its launch-weight once more.

“And do you take the Holy Lance into battle?” asked one of the Spaniards, greatly daring.

The Emperor nodded, the gold circlet welded to his plain steel helmet flashing in the sun. “It never leaves me. But I carry it in my shield-hand, and never strike a blow with it. What has once drunk the Holy Blood of our Savior cannot be polluted with the blood of some miscreant unbeliever. I defend it more than I do my own life.”

The Spaniards stood silent. This assault, they knew perfectly well, was being staged as a demonstration to them as well as an extermination of the brigands. The Emperor meant to show them the futility of anything other than perfect alliance and obedience. Yet they relished it. For generations their ancestors had fought a losing struggle against the tide of Islam, seemingly forgotten by the Christians at their back. If now a strong king came with armies at his call, they were ready to show the way and share the profits. The relic in his hand was only one further proof of his power, yet a strong one. Finally one of the barons spoke, won over and ready to show his loyalty.

“All of us will follow the Lance,” he said, in the mutilated Latin of the hill-folk. Murmurs of agreement came from his fellows. “It is in my mind that the holder of the Lance deserves to hold the other great relic of our Savior.”

Bruno looked at him sharply, suspiciously. “What is that?”

The Spaniard smiled. “It is known to few. But in these hills, it is said, rests the third relic, besides Holy Cross and Holy Lance, known to have touched our Savior.” He paused, pleased with the effect of his words.

“And that is?”

“The Holy Grail.” In the border dialect the words came out as santo graale.

“And where and what is that?” Bruno asked very quietly.

“I cannot say. But somewhere in these hills, they say it is hidden. Has been hidden since the time of the long-haired kings.”

The other barons looked at each other doubtfully, unsure of the wisdom of mentioning the old dynasty wiped out by the grandfather of Charlemagne. But Bruno cared nothing for the legitimacy or otherwise of the dynasty he had himself wiped out, his attention focused solely on what the baron was saying.

“Then who holds it, do we know that?”

“The heretics,” the baron replied. “In these hills, they are everywhere. Not worshipers of Mohammed or Allah, worshipers, it is said, of the devil. The Grail fell into their hands many years ago, so men say, though no-one knows what such a thing may be. We do not know who the heretics are, they could be among us now. They preach, it is said, strange doctrine.”

The machine behind them crashed again, a rock soared slowly into the air, fell ruinously upon the doorway behind which plumes of black smoke were rising. A hoarse cheer rose from the ranks of the Lanzenorden as they pressed forward to the breach. Their Emperor pulled his longsword free, turned to lead them, Holy Lance held with shield-grip in one brawny fist.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry