“I never knew that. How?”
Shef shrugged. “No-one knows. Not yet. But once we knew that we knew what we needed. Big tubes, bigger than any man could get his mouth round. And something to suck the water through. Like a bellows in reverse. Then we could make the water run from a fen into a channel, even a channel some distance away.”
The wain and its escort pulled up by the mill they had been making for, and Shef jumped out, leaving the door swinging wide once more. Round the mill ran a confusion of muddy ditches, with here and there a tube of tarred canvas leading, seemingly, simply from one drain to another.
“Again, you see, new land.” Shef lowered his voice so only his royal guests could hear, not the escort. “I don’t know how much. Sometimes I think there might be the worth of half a dozen shires lying waiting to be drained. And this land I do not give away. I make the mills, I pay the millers. What is gained remains royal land, to be leased out for the royal revenues.”
“To your own profit again,” cut in Godive, her voice like a whip. Alfred saw his scarred co-king flinch again. “Tell me, out of all this, what have you done for women?”
Shef hesitated, began to say something, checked himself. He was unsure what to name first. The mills themselves, which had released tens of thousands of female slaves from the everlasting chore of grinding grain with a hand-quern? The experiments being conducted in the Wisdom-House to find a better way to spin thread than the distaff, which almost every woman in the country still carried with her wherever she went, winding incessantly? No, Shef decided, the vital thing for women had been the soap-works he had set up, where they made a harsh and gritty soap out of ashes and animal fat: no new thing in itself, but one which, Hund the leech insisted, had halved the number of women dying of child-bed fever—once the king had issued an order that all midwives must take the soap and always wash their hands.
He took too long to decide. “I thought so,” said Godive and whirled away, dragging her children with her. “Everything is for men. And everything for money.”
She did not trouble to lower her voice. As she swept towards the wain, the two kings, Cwicca and Osmod, the miller and his wife, the two bands of royal escorts, all stared after her. Then all except Shef turned their eyes back to him.
He dropped his gaze. “It’s not like that,” he muttered, the same anger growing inside him that he had felt when the man crashed from the tower and they had asked him to pay for failure nonetheless. “You can’t do everything. You have to do what you know how to, first, and then see where that leads you. Women get their share of what we have done. More land, more food, more wool.”
“Aye,” agreed Cwicca. “A few years ago, every winter you saw little bairns in rags and barefoot every winter, crying for cold and hunger. Now they’ve coats at least, and hot food inside them. Because the king protects them.”
“That’s right,” said Shef, looking up, his face suddenly fierce. “Because all this”—his arms waved at the mill, the fields, the drainage channels, the waiting wain—”all this depends on one thing. And that is force. A few years ago, if any king, if good King Edmund or King Ella had done any wise thing, as soon as he had enough silver to use, the Vikings would have been on him, to take it away and turn the land to beggary again. To keep it like this we have to sink ships and break armies!”
A growl of immediate assent from his men and Alfred’s, all of whom had won their way by battle alone.
“Yes,” Shef went on, “all this is well enough. And I would be happy to see women take their part of it. But what I need most, what I would pay gold for, not silver, is not a new way of hitching horses, or of draining marshes, but a new way to defeat the Emperor out there. Bruno the German. For if we have forgotten him, here in the marsh, he has not forgotten us. Rig, my father”—Shef’s voice rose to a shout, and he pulled from the breast of his tunic his silver ladder-emblem—”send me a new thing to bring victory in battle! A new sword, a new shield! New crossbows, new catapults. There is no other wisdom we need more. If Ragnarök is to come, let us fight it and win!”