King and Emperor. Chapter 3, 4
Shef eyed his royal guests broodingly as they emerged from the guest hall he had had built for them. The dread of the night was still on him. It had turned the whole world a darker shade. He found himself even walking more lightly, more warily, as if at any moment the earth might split and hurl him down to what he knew lay beneath.
And yet all seemed well enough. There was his friend and partner Alfred, turning on the steps and stretching his arms out encouragingly to the sturdy toddler behind him. Little Edward half-running, half-falling into his father’s catch. Behind them both, stepping forward with pleased maternal smile and a second baby slung familiarly on her hip, the face Shef could not forget. His own love, long-lost to him now, Godive, once his childhood sweetheart from the marshes, now known and loved far and wide as the Lady of Wessex. They could not see him for a moment as he stood in the shadow of the strange contrivance he meant to show off that day. He could observe unobserved.
Unobserved by those he watched. Not by his own men, who shifted uneasily and glanced at each other as they saw his silent concentration.
He ought, he knew, to at least fear and resent them. To be making plans for—if not their death, their removal. For making them safe. Many would say, though they did not dare to say it to his face, that it was a king’s first duty to think of his own successor. Years ago, in the dark days of the double invasion by Charles the Bald’s Franks and Ivar the Boneless’s pagans, Shef and Alfred had agreed to share their luck, and their kingdoms, if they should ever hold them again. They had agreed too that each would be the other’s successor if either died without an heir, and that any heir of either would inherit from both in the same situation. The deal had not seemed important at the time. Neither had much chance of living to see another winter, let alone another spring. And Godive had slept in Shef’s tent, if not in his bed. He had thought, if they lived, it would only be a matter of time till her love returned, and his desire.
He had been wrong. If he died now, his kingdom fell to Alfred. And after him to the laughing toddler now being carried towards him, baby Edward. The sub-kings would ignore the agreement, of course. There was no chance that the Scandinavian kings, Olaf or Guthmund or any of the dozen others, would agree to obey an English Christian. It was doubtful if even the Mercians or Northumbrian English would accept rule by a Wessex Saxon. The One King of the North was truly One King. No-one else would be accepted by the rest.
An unstable situation. Could this be the trigger for the Ragnarök his father wanted him to know of? He ought to take a wife and breed a son as fast as possible. Everyone thought so. The court was alive with jarls’ daughters and princesses of the North, paraded in the hope of catching the king’s feeble attention. Ragnarök or no, he would not do it. Could not do it.
As he stepped forward out of the shadow to greet his guests, Shef creased his face into a welcoming smile. Even to those he greeted, it looked like a rictus of pain. Alfred controlled himself, managed not to shoot a glance at his wife. He had known for years that his co-king was not the boy-lover many whispered, was instead in love with his own wife. Sometimes he wished it was in him to hand her over, or to share her. But while it might be in him, it was not in her. For some reason, she seemed to hate her friend of childhood more deeply each passing year. Her resentment grew with his success: as she thought, perhaps, of what might have been.
“What have you to show us today?” asked Alfred with false-ringing good cheer.
Shef’s face brightened, as it always did when he had some new thing to explain. “It is a horse-wain. But one to carry people.”