Brand twitched his silver-mounted axe “Battle-troll” in reply.
“Years ago, Brand, you taught me the way of the drengr, when we marched to York and took it. Does the drengr abandon his comrades?”
Brand saw in an instant which way the questions were going, and who they were aimed at. He himself, Shef knew, would cheerfully have dropped Svandis overside as a sacrifice to Ran, goddess of the deeps. Nor did he consider her a comrade, but a stowaway. But once she was considered as a comrade, a shipmate, however junior, then public opinion among both Vikings and English alike was utterly solid against any desertion or sacrifice, and most solid among the most junior, the rank and file, the oar-pullers and shield-carriers.
Before Brand could frame a temporizing reply, Shef went on, “For how many comrades must an army march?”
Brand had no choice in answering this question. “One,” he answered. An automatic pride straightened his shoulders, made him glare round at the watching southerners.
“And for that one must the leaders too risk their lives?”
“All right,” he said. “You’re going after her. But not alone! Take the fleet. And if these pigs’ fry try to stop you…” He stepped forward, axe half-raised, anger at being out-maneuvered translated instantly to anger at any show of resistance. The guard captain’s hand dropped to his hilt, spears snapped forward from the crowd.
Solomon lifted a hand and walked between the two groups. “We did not take the woman,” he said. “The killing and the rape took place inside our city, and we too have an injury to avenge. If you have need of our assistance, it will be granted. But what do you intend to do?”
Shef knew by now. This time, as he raised his voice, it was aimed at the listener in the crowd who must be there, the one left behind to report on how the message was taken. He spoke in his simple Arabic, the lingua franca of this coast. It would be understood.
“I will go to the milestone, if someone will show me the way. But not alone! I will go one of thirteen.”
As Skaldfinn translated, Shef realized Hund was at his elbow. “Who will you take?” asked the little leech, his voice strained.
Shef put an arm round him. “You, old friend. Cwicca and Osmod. Skaldfinn must come. I will leave Hagbarth and Thorvin to command the fleet. And Brand must stay too, he is too heavy on his feet for the mountain roads. But I will ask him and Cwicca to pick the best axemen and bowmen in the fleet.”
Solomon too was close beside him. “If you are prepared to trust me, I would come too. I have at least an idea of what this may be about.”
“I’m glad someone does,” said Shef.
They filed out of the city the next morning, as the first streaks of light crept into the sky and the birds in the fields began their eager song. The men were at least well fed and rested, even Shef, though he had hardly slept at all the night before. The long weeks of sailing with hardly a hand needing to be raised, and with the burdens of rule necessarily far away, had left him a layer of endurance that had not yet been touched.
Solomon and Skaldfinn followed him, with Hund, who had hardly said a word since the news of Svandis’s abduction, by his side. Behind the four of them came nine others, five of them crossbowmen selected from the English crews. Cwicca and Osmod led them, as was their right. As he checked the men’s gear before the start Shef had been surprised to see the villainous squint of Steffi among the picked men.
“I said the best shots in the fleet,” he snapped to Cwicca. “Steffi’s the worst. Send him back and get another one.”
Cwicca’s face shifted to the glassy obstinacy he used when confronted by a direct order he did not like. “Steffi’s all right,” he muttered. “He was mad keen to come. He won’t let you down.”
“Crossbowman! He couldn’t hit a cow’s backside with the butt-end of one,” snarled Shef. But he did not persist with his order. Loyalty worked both ways.