King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 11, 12, 13

Farman rubbed his eyes. “I must write down what I saw before it fades, and then the news must go to the king.”

“Can you tell us anything of what you saw?”

“Danger and destruction. Fire and venom—and the bane of Balder loose.”

The priests stiffened, knowing who it was that Farman would not name, the god they remembered by the bale-fire in their holy circle.

“If the bane of Balder is loose,” one of them asked slowly, “what is it that the English king Alfred can do? Council of aldermen or no?”

“He can turn out the fleet,” replied Farman. “Send every man and every ship to the place of danger. And that is not the mouth of the Elbe now, no, nor the Dannevirke. The bane of Balder is loose everywhere, but he will show himself first in the south, where the sons of Muspell ride on the day of Ragnarök.”

He stood up, like a man unutterably weary from an immense journey. “I did wrong, brothers. I should have gone with the One King when he went to seek his destiny. For his destiny affects us all.”

Chapter Twelve

From the hitherto barely-known rock of Puigpunyent the riders spurred in all directions. Some at the best speed their horses could make: they had little distance to travel, were under orders to go directly to every baron’s hold and rock-based tower in the borderlands, to demand every man that could ride to join their Emperor. They would not get them, for in the complex local politics of the mountain marches, where Frank faced Spaniard and Christian faced heretic, where the Moors raided continually and Jewish levies watched the passes and the toll-roads, no baron, not even those whom Bruno’s informants had selected for loyalty to Holy Church, would think of leaving himself defenseless. Nor would Bruno trust them if they did. But they would provide the first ring, till they were replaced by better men, at this moment when the Empire and the Emperor needed above all numbers.

Other messengers paced themselves more carefully, riding in small groups with a tail of spare horses behind them. They had further to go: some many hundreds of miles further, but all of them knowing that it would be days of riding before they reached the secure parts of the Empire, where remounts were to be had at the display of the Emperor’s tokens. Those who had furthest to go were the ones selected to ride for the strongholds of the Lanzenorden, all of them in the German-speaking realms far to the east and north, through the mountains or across the Rhine: Freiburg and Worms, Trier and Zurich and even Bern high in the Alps. From there would come the men in whom Bruno had most trust, every last warrior-monk of the Order, the men he needed to fight his war and pursue his quest to the finish. There would be no hesitation or calculation there. But they could not come immediately, would never come in the numbers he needed.

In between were the riders heading for every bishop’s seat in the marches of Southern France and Italy: Massilia and Vercelli, Lyons and Turin and Carcassonne and Dax. Their message was the simplest. Every man you can spare. No need for knights, no need for the heavy-armed and aristocratic, though they must come too, to officer the rest. Send every man who has a pair of eyes and a hunting bow. Send the poachers and the huntsmen, the falconeers and the charcoal-burners. The confessors of every village must know who are the men who can find their way in the dark, who can chase the deer across the hills and into the maquis. Offer forgiveness and remission of sins to all who will take service now, for Church and Cross and Empire. Above all, Bruno had pointed out, I must have your bacheliers: the men who in proper Latin, if the Latin of the degenerating Empire, would have been vaccalarii, the men of the vaches. The cowboys, who rode the marshes of the Camargue on their rough horses, armed with the ten-foot ox-goads that were their trade-tool, strips of jerked beef wound round their hats, watchful at all times for the attacks of the stalking, furious-tempered wild bulls. Too flighty and light-armed for battle, but capable of scouring a countryside like a kitchen-maid sanding rust out of a kettle.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry