Yes. It was clear that almost any kind of authority could be resisted up here. King or Emperor. Or Church and Emperor.
In the coldly objective way his mind worked when he was left alone, Shef set himself to considering the information he had been given. One thing he had come to understand about himself during the years of his rule was this. Good or bad, he did not believe all that was told him, even all that he himself saw. But his disbelief meant that he did not need to lie to himself, as so many people, he knew, did all or some of the time. They believed what they needed to. He did not need to believe anything, and could see things the way they were.
So he did not need to believe Svandis. She had greeted him, and his men, with tears of relief. Then, as he had seen, she had grown ashamed of herself and talked harshly and fiercely to cover what had been her fear. He did not blame her. He had known veteran warriors do the same. And when she told him what had happened, Shef, piecing together what he knew of her history, had understood both her fear and her shame.
A woman, taken from both sides with her dress whirled over her head. No woman wore anything beneath her dress, whatever she wore over it. A woman with her arms trapped, naked from breast down, could think of nothing but rape. That was why it was an offense in all the Northern codes of law to raise a woman’s clothing above her knee. But Svandis had not needed legal prompting to think of rape. She knew all about that. Shef was proud, but not amazed, that she had slashed herself free and killed a man: he had seen her grandfather do the same, starting unarmed and half-drowned against two men who held his arms. She had the blood of Ragnar indeed.
But the fear had struck deep into her. What she said about her captors was tinged by it. And she said that they were savages, worse than the deepest heathens among the Swedes, cold and heartless. She had heard tales of them from the women in Cordova, she said—and that at least must be true. That in the mountains lived the sect where the men hated all women and the women all men. Where every joy and delight in the world was rejected. “And that is how they are,” Svandis said again and again. “You can see it when they look at you! I stood there when they set me free with my legs bare and my body displayed like a dancing girl. And they looked at me. And then they looked away, all of them, even the mule-drivers. I would rather have heard your men shouting the things they do at women they see. They rape women, and hurt them, but that is because they need them, at least. Here you can see the hate in their eyes.”
Fear talking, Shef reflected as he sat at ease looking out over the mountains and the passes beneath. Yet there might be something in it. It had a kind of relation to what Solomon had said, after he had consoled Svandis and she had gone to sleep under guard and in the sun. After he had told Solomon what they had said about the test. Solomon had thought for a long time and then approached him, keeping his distance even from his colleague Skaldfinn.
“Something you should understand,” he said. “Something few know. You may have thought these people are Christians.”
Shef had nodded. He could see a crucifix on the wall of what seemed a rude church. Folk who walked past it knelt, crossed their breasts.
“They are not. Or if they are it is of a kind that has no dealings with others. Few even with my people. You see—the followers of Mohammed, the followers of Christ, my people the Jews. They fight each other, they may persecute each other, but they share many things. To Islam, Christ was one of the prophets, to the Christians, their God is also our God, only they have given him a Son. The Mohammedans believe in one Allah as we believe in one Jehovah, like us they will not eat pork or meat which has not been bled. You see? We are—we began—on the same side.