“An English child flying in a new machine,” whispered Bruno. “That can only mean one man, and we both know who it is. But what has he done it for?”
Agilulf had caught up with them, heard the Emperor’s question. “Who can tell?” he replied. “Who can fathom the plan of that fiend? I remember the strange ship at the battle in Denmark, I rowed past it at twenty feet and I still did not know what it was for till the battle was over.”
“The simplest way to understand a plan,” said Erkenbert, speaking now in the Emperor’s native Low German so like his own Northumbrian English. “The simplest way to understand a plan is to assume that it’s worked.”
“What do you mean?” snapped the Emperor.
“Well, here is the Emperor of the Romans standing round in a dark thorn-wood at night, with his advisers, none of them knowing what is happening or what to do. Perhaps that is what our enemy intended. Just that we should be standing here.”
The Emperor’s anxious face cleared suddenly. He bent forward, gripped Erkenbert’s scrawny shoulder with his usual delicate care, as if afraid to crush it.
“I will make you an Archbishop for this,” he said. “I understand. This is a distraction, to make us look the wrong way. Like a night attack on the side away from the real one. And it has worked! And all the time the bastards are heading for what we had shut up tight as a mouse’s larder a few hours ago.”
He swung effortlessly back into the saddle. “Agilulf, as soon as the fire-break is made I want you to withdraw all the Lanzenbrüder from the line and send them back to the castle, at the double. And send six men round the inner ring to tell them to face about and watch both ways, inside and out.”
He paused a further instant before driving in the spurs. “And send a man back to pick up this child’s body. He died like a hero and he shall be buried like one.”
The spurs drove home, the stallion crashed away down the rocky hillside. Agilulf followed to carry out his orders. Erkenbert, left alone, remounted his mule and trotted at a far slower pace in their wake.
Archbishop, he thought. The Emperor always fulfills his promises. And there is an Archbishopric free, in York. If the Church can once more extend her wing over the heretics and the apostates. Who would have thought that I would be the heir of Wulfhere, he of a great family and I the child of a country priest and his concubine? Strange what happened to Wulfhere. Dead of a stroke in his bath, they said. I wonder how long they had to hold him under. The Emperor is generous, and can pardon failure. Never idleness, though. All his dogs have to bark. And bite as well.
Light showed brightly along the edge of the rocky ravine along which Shef, Richier, Straw and the others were climbing, illuminating the forbidding mass of the stone castle above them. In the ravine, though, only black shadow. For a few moments they were shielded from sight. Shouts echoed into the darkness both from behind them, where the guards were still watching the lights in the sky, and from the castle walls above, where gaping sentries were being pushed and kicked back to their posts. Better be out of sight soon, Shef thought.
Richier pushed past him as they came up to the base of the wall, seeming to grow out of the native rock like a cliff. He turned, spoke harshly in his dialect. Shef saw Straw and the other youths turn their backs, hide their faces. Richier repeated his order, gesturing fiercely at Shef. Turn. Do not look. Slowly Shef obeyed.
For a few moments. He knew that Richier would look back once, twice, then carry on with whatever it was that he had to do. It was like playing the game they called “Grandmother’s Footsteps,” where the child approaching had to guess when the child being stalked would turn round to look. Shef turned his head alone, watched Richier in the blackness.