Georgios rolled his eyes with extravagant disbelief. “He is your emperor, not mine. Yet not even my emperor, not even the idiot before him, would go chasing relics at this stage of a war.”
“It worked for him last time,” said Agilulf, forcing as much loyalty into his voice as he could muster.
Tell me again about this God-damned—”
Bruno, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Protector of the Faith, scourge of the heretics, apostates and false believers, paused. It had been a bad day. Another bad day. Here in the broken country where France joined Spain and both were separated by the high Pyrenees, every village had a fortress on a peak, most of them seemingly called “Puigpunyent,” meaning “Sharp-point Peak.” That was why so many Muslim bandits had managed to establish themselves. No longer. He had cleared them out. But now, when he might have expected gratitude and co-operation from the Christians he had saved from their enemies, instead stubborn resistance, closed gates, flocks driven into the hills, people lodged in their high eyries. Not all of them. According to the barons who had come in and submitted to him, the people who were resisting him were now heretics, of some sect long established in the border country, with whom the Catholics had fought a bitter neighborly war in private for generations.
The trouble was, everyone agreed that it was the heretics who had the secret of the Holy Grail. If it existed—and Bruno believed passionately that it did, just as the Holy Lance on which his rule rested had existed, hidden among the pagans—it was in some mountain peak or other, hidden among the heretics.
And so he had set himself to reduce them, to burn, batter, frighten, bribe or wheedle them out of their mountain lairs. Sometimes it went well, sometimes badly. Today had been a bad day. Fierce resistance, the gate untouched by the heavy catapult rocks, and twenty good brothers of the Lanzenorden dead, along with many more of the troops levied from the barons of Southern France.
Even so, he had almost committed a mortal sin, in speaking ill of the precious relic. Bruno paused, looked round deliberately. He set his own penances. In time past he had taken a handful of wooden splinters, set them alight, and let them burn on his open palm. Yet the blisters had impeded him in battle. He had no right to disqualify himself from God’s work merely for his own sin. And in any case it was not the hand which had sinned. No. Drawing a dagger, he held its tip over a candle, waited till he saw it glow. Then, deliberately once more he thrust out his almost-sinful tongue, laid the red-hot tip to it. Held it for long seconds. A tear slowly trickled down through the dust caked thick on each cheek, but his hatchet-face otherwise did not change. The smell of scorching flesh came to his nostrils, a familiar one now in these days of siege and skirmish.
He pulled the dagger away, looked critically at its tip to see if he had affected its temper. Seemingly not. He looked up and met the disapproving gaze of his confidant and spiritual adviser, the deacon Erkenbert. Erkenbert did not like these ascetic practices, felt they led to spiritual pride.
“If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out,” said Bruno, answering the unspoken accusation.
“Better to attend to the instructions of your confessor,” replied Erkenbert, “always assuming he has any.” Erkenbert had a grudge against Bruno’s confessor Felix as well, for Felix, being a priest, could hear confessions and give absolution as Erkenbert, still only a deacon, could not.
Bruno dismissed the incipient argument with a gesture. “Now,” he repeated, “tell me again about the blessed Grail of Our Lord. My faith, alas, needs strengthening once more.”
Erkenbert began the story, still with an air of reluctant disapproval. In a sense he, Erkenbert, was a man trapped by success. He had been with the Emperor, when the latter, a mere Ritter of the Lanzenorden, went into the waste places of the North, to return with the Holy Lance which had once more unified the collapsing Empire of Charlemagne. And because he had been with the Emperor all that time, had done the research which had enabled them in the end to identify the Lance, and had furthermore consoled the despondent Emperor when he felt his search might never end, now he was considered to be an expert on relics and on searches. But the Lance had been proposed and authenticated by the holy Saint Rimbert, Archbishop of Hamburg and Bremen. This story that the Emperor was now convinced of had a very different origin.