He bent down over the body, pulled the Rig-pendant from round its neck. “I will leave this to be found somewhere. Then men will think he is dead.”
“But they won’t know,” said Svandis.
“So they will tell tales instead. Of how his faithful friends took him away from the battlefield and were never seen again. Went to Asgarth, to Valhalla, to Thruthvangar. Were taken by the gods, for him to be a god. Not a god who became a man, but a man who became a god. That will be a good belief for men to have, in time to come.”
Farman turned and faded without more words into the gloom. Not far away shouts could be heard, torches were flaring. The Waymen, with Cwicca and Thorvin at their head, searching for their lost leader.
“We must go,” said Solomon.
“How shall we carry him?”
“Use the graduale again. It can perform one last service, and then we will burn it tonight for firewood, before it kills more men.”
As the two men strapped the still-unmoving Shef on the old ladder, the body stirred, spoke.
“What did he say?” asked Svandis.
“I couldn’t hear,” said Solomon.
“I could,” said Hund. “His mind is wandering in far places.”
“What did he say, then?”
“He said, ‘Up the ladder and into the light.’ But I do not know from what prison he thinks he is escaping.”
The two men and the woman carried their burden away from the searching torches and into the dark.
The slow wheel of the seasons turned. Five winters passed; now hard frost gave way to slow thaw. An early spring. The plowmen were drawing their furrows across the green fields of an English spring: white hawthorn blossom bloomed from every hedge.
The King of the West Saxons, Alfred esteadig, walked with his wife in their private garden, their children playing under the eye of nursemaids not far off. “The Embassy today,” he said abruptly. “It was from the Pope. Finally.”
“The Pope?” said Godive, surprised and a little anxious. “Which one?”
“The real one. John VIII, I think he is. The one they tried to depose in favor of the Englishman. Restored at last, the eternal squabbling of the eternal city finally over, at least for now. The last pretender Pope banned—or murdered. It is hard to tell. The new Pope’s first official act was to offer to repeal the interdict England has lain under. To bring us back into community with the Church.”
“Will you refuse?”
“I will tell him we will pay no taxes, we will restore no Church property, the Way will still have the right to preach here and make conversions. If after that he chooses to say we are once more in communion, it will make no difference to us. I think it is a good sign. The Church has learnt humility. I think it will learn more yet.”
“What do you mean?”
“I think power has shifted for good, now. All the reports for the past years say that there is no Empire left, or even the thought of one. Christendom is breaking up into smaller states, under local rulers. No more threat in the south from the followers of the Prophet. The Greeks are no danger. There is no need for great empires, armies of conquest.”
“But our Empire too, such as it was, it is breaking up. Since we lost…”
“Since we lost the One King,” Alfred agreed. “It is true, the old agreement he and I made, it cannot stand. Guthmund and the others would not submit to me, nor I to them. Yet we have learned to work together these last few years. I think that that will endure. There will be no war, or the Vikings back on our shores again. We know each other’s strength too well. Besides, the veterans of the One King’s army, they would not fight each other. They speak the same language now, no-one else understands them. They will keep the peace, and make others keep it too. In loyalty to their master.”
A long pause, while Godive considered the name they had not spoken.
“Do you think he is dead?” she asked. “They never found the body.”