The Hammer and The Cross. Jar1. Chapter 6, 7
Shef looked along the row of faces confronting him: all hostile, all disapproving.
“You took your time,” said Alfred.
“I hope she was worth it,” said Brand, looking with incredulity at the drawn and shabby figure of Godive in her borrowed churl-wife’s gown, straddling the pony behind Shef’s.
“This is not the behavior of a lord of warriors,” said Thorvin. “To leave the Army threatened on two sides, and ride off on some private errand. I know you came to us first to save the girl, but to go now… Could she not have waited?”
“She had waited too long already,” said Shef briefly. He swung from his horse, grimacing slightly from the pain in his thighs. It had been another long night and day of a ride, though the consolation was that even coming on hellbent, with the fury of Wulfgar and the bishops to spur him, Burgred must still be two days behind.
Shef turned to Cwicca and his comrades. “Go back to your places in the camp,” he said. “And remember. This was a great deed that we did. You will see in time that it meant even more than it seems. I will not forget to reward you all for it.”
As the men trotted off, Hund among them, he turned back to his councillors. “Now,” he said. “We know where Burgred is. Two days behind and coming toward us as fast as he can bring himself to march. We can expect him to reach our boundary the second night from this.
“But where is Ivar?”
“Bad news there,” said Brand briefly. “He came down on the mouth of the Ouse two days ago with forty ships. The Norfolk Ouse, of course, not the Yorkshire Ouse. Attacked Lynn at the river mouth straight away. The town tried to resist him. He battered the stockade down in a few minutes and stamped the place flat. No survivors to say how he did it, but there’s no doubt it happened.”
“The mouth of the Ouse,” muttered Shef. “Twenty miles off. And Burgred about the same.”
Without orders Father Boniface had produced the great map of Norfolk and its borders which Shef had had made for the wall of his main chamber. Shef stood over it, estimating, looking from place to place.
“What we have to do…” he began.
“Before we do anything,” Brand interrupted, “we have to discuss the matter of whether you are still fit to be trusted as our jarl.”
For a long moment Shef stared at him, one eye against two. In the end it was Brand’s eyes that dropped.
“All right, all right,” he muttered. “You’re up to something, no doubt, and one day you may consent to tell us what.”
“Meanwhile,” Alfred put in, “since you went to such trouble to fetch the lady, it might only be polite to have some thought for what she is to do now. Not just leave her standing outside our tents.”
Shef looked again from face to hostile face, focusing finally on Godive’s eyes—once more brimming with tears.
There is no time for all this! Something inside him shrieked. Persuading people. Lulling people. Pretending they are important. They are all wheels in the machine, and so am I! But if they thought that they might refuse to turn.
“I am sorry,” he said. “Godive, forgive me. I was so sure we were safe that my mind turned to other things. Let me present to you my friends…”
The dragon-boats cruised down the shallow, muddy stream of the Great Ouse river, the western frontier of the Wayland jarldom they had come to destroy, forty in line ahead. Some of the crews were keeping up a song as they wound through the green, summer countryside, the masts and furled sails marking their passage over the flat levels. Ivar’s men did not bother. They knew the time without a song or a shanty-man to mark it. Besides, wherever Ivar Ragnarsson stood there was now a cloud of strain and tension, even for veteran pirates who would boast and believe that they feared no man.
Not far ahead the helmsmen—the rower-reliefs and the cowed slaves who manned Ivar’s machines, one to each of the front six vessels—could see a wooden bridge across the river: not much of a bridge, not part of a town, just the place where the road happened to cross the stream. Chance of ambush from it, none. Just the same, veteran pirates grew to be veterans by taking no unnecessary risks at all. Even Ivar, totally careless of his own safety as he was, did things the way his men expected. A furlong short of the bridge, the figure in the prow, resplendent in scarlet cloak and grass-green trousers, turned and gave one harsh call.