“Wains have always carried people.”
“Three miles to market and back. Bump into a pothole, crawl out of it. Going no faster than a walk, or the passengers would be hurled out. Even on the good stone roads we have had built, you and I”—the last three words were mere flattery, as everyone knew—”it would be torment to travel in it if the horses began to run.
“But not with this. See.” Shef patted a stout post that led up from a frame above the axles. “This post holds a metal spring.” He pointed to it.
“Like the steel you use for your crossbows.”
“Yes. Over the spring we fit straps of the stoutest leather. And from the straps we hang—this.” Shef patted the wickerwork body of the coach, setting it swaying gently. “Climb in.”
Gingerly Alfred stepped up, sat on one of the two benches in the coach body, noting the way it bounced and swung like a hammock.
“Lady.” Shef stood back a careful two paces to avoid any brush of hand or clothing, gestured Godive in after her husband. She climbed in, moved little Edward from the place he had seized by his father, and settled herself firmly next to Alfred. Shef climbed in too, picked up the wailing child, and sat him next to himself. He waved to the driver in front of them, who cracked his whip and set off with a dramatic jerk.
As the coach dashed at unheard-of speed down the road behind its four horses, Alfred leapt in his seat with surprise. From behind the coach there came a dismal screech, which turned into a violent noise like pigs being killed. A gap-toothed face rose grinning into view, face purple with the exertion of blowing on a bagpipe.
“My thane Cwicca. If they hear the bagpipe people know to clear the road.”
And indeed the coach, swaying from side to side on its springs, was already racing for the outskirts of Stamford. Alfred realized that the road was lined with cheering churls and their wives, all caught up in the intoxication of speed. Behind them the royal escorts were stretching out their horses into a gallop, whooping like jaybirds with excitement. Godive clutched her baby daughter to her and looked anxiously at Edward, prevented from climbing out by King Shef’s iron grip on his breeches.
Above the roar of the road Alfred yelled, “Is this the most useful new thing the Wisdom-House has brought you?”
“No,” Shef shouted back. “There are many. Here is one coming up, I’ll show you. Stop, Osmod,” he bellowed to the driver, “stop for Christ’s sake, I mean Thor’s sake, stop, can’t you, what’s the matter?”
Another grinning face peered back. “Sorry, lord, the horses get excited, like, with the speed.”
Alfred looked down doubtfully. The court of Stamford was a strange place. Men called Alfred esteadig, “the Gracious,” for his kindness and his good humor. Just the same, his thanes and aldermen addressed him with something like respect. Even churls often spoke to his co-king as if they were both schoolboys engaged in stealing apples: and both Cwicca and Osmod, thanes though they might be called, still had the marks of slave-birth on their faces and bodies. Not long ago their only possible contact with a king would have been facing his doom on an execution-ground. It was true that Cwicca and Osmod were both survivors of the One King’s strange journey to the North, and so allowed many liberties. Even so…
The One King had already sprung from the coach, leaving its door swinging open, and was setting off from the road to a group of churls knee-deep in mud not far away. They broke off from what they were doing, knuckled foreheads in respect. And yet they were grinning too.
“See what they’re up to? What’s the hardest work in clearing a new field? Not cutting the trees down. Any fool can do that with a broad-axe. No, getting the stumps out. They used to cut them off low down and then try and burn them out. Long job, and oak, or ash, or elm, they’ll all grow back from almost anything.”
“But what we have here”—Shef seized a long staff standing up from a complex contrivance of iron wheels and pulley-blocks—”is ropes rigged to the stoutest stump in the field. Fit the other ends round a weaker stump. Throw your weight on it”—Shef suited his actions to the words, ratcheted the staff back, threw his weight forward again, and again. Twenty yards away, with cracking noises, a stump began to heave out of the earth. A churl sprang forward, added his weight to the king’s. With heave after heave, the stump tore free, to loud cheering from churls and the watching escort.