The guards were not unfriendly, but there were three of them at all times, and they were not careless, either. They knew about uptime Ynglings; Gunnar had trained them himself. It didn’t really matter. If he escaped, where would he go? Who but the Ynglings would shelter a man accused of causing the Plague? Indeed, even the Ynglings had a vocal faction in favour of not extraditing him to the Georgians, but hanging him themselves. At times Gunnar agreed with them. True, he wasn’t personally to blame. He had not been the one to brag about the bottle, or whatever it was that had passed between Ask and Hassan; nor had he been the one to steal it and plan its use. But for all that he was the representative of the Secret Hird in this time. He was part of the organisation that had sent agents downtime with biological weapons intended as a final deterrent against nuclear attack. And now the fourth seal had been broken, and Death bestrode Europe like a giant, grinning hollowly as he scooped up men by the hundreds of thousands. Sometimes at night Gunnar thought he could hear the bones clacking in the Danse Macabre, or the screams of children too weak to move, burning inside houses torched for quarantine. Then he would wake, sweating, and realise that it was all true, and that even the cold light of dawn would not take away the nightmare. He had slept little, this past month.
He was glad, then, to have visitors, to take his mind off his thoughts. His wife Ragna, on the other hand, looked positively grim, as did Håvard. “They’ve decided”, Ragna began without preamble. “We need the Georgian alliance. So you’re being sacrificed.”
Gunnar nodded, unsurprised. A war with Germany and Brittany was serious business, and not a good time to antagonise allies. “Such is life,” he said. “What about their other demands?” The Georgians had ‘requested’ that all his successors should be handed over to them from the minute they arrived at Dovre.
“We won’t refuse them, but we’ve decided to tell them that we’ll kill our own, thanks very much. Then we’ll give them bodies as proof. Not necessarily the right bodies, you understand.”
“Ah so.” The mission would continue, then. Gunnar wasn’t as relieved as he had thought he’d be. It was hard for his mind’s ear to hear the trumpets of the Secret Hird over the crackle of burning thatch and the screams. There was an awkward silence, then Ragna continued.
“I think there’ll be changes, though. This with the black bottles – it’s the final straw for a lot of the Council. The next Dovreman, I think, won’t find himself given power and land as you and Ask were, and all of you going back to Geir Jonsson.”
“Aye. Fair enough. Perhaps they shouldn’t have given it to me or Ask, either.”
Håvard waved his hand impatiently. “Never mind all that. The next man from Dovre can watch out for himself. The question is, how do we save you from hanging?”
Ragna nodded. “Yes. That’s what we came here for. Listen. You’ve still got friends on the Council, and they’re willing to take a bit of heat for you. Tonight the guards will be replaced with some German prisoners, and your warband will break in, kill them, and rescue you. We’ll have to make it look good for the Georgians, though, so we’ll need to move fast.”
“And what do we do after the escape?”
“I’ve got your boat ready to go, it’s in that inlet over towards Magnus’s farm. Food for twenty people for a month, weapons, armour, everything.”
“All right, very good, but where are we going?”
“That’s the problem: I don’t know. I hoped you might.”
Gunnar leaned back for a minute, thinking. Nowhere in Europe was safe, but a good clinker-built dragon ship could get around that. But if he was to lead men into exile, he had to know that they would follow.
“All right. But first I have to know this. I am responsible – not at fault, but responsible – for unleashing the Plague on the world. Tens of millions will die because of that. Europe will become a charnel house, a boneyard. Why are you not giving me over to the Georgians, and spitting on my corpse?”
Ragna sighed, half-smiling. “Well – we’ve been married ten years now. I suppose I’ve become used to cleaning up your messes. And anyway, I said the words before God, ‘for better or for worse, in sickness and in health’. This is worse, right enough, and sickness too. But I said the words.”
Håvard nodded. “Aye, sir, she has the right of it. I ate your salt, and so did the lads. We’ll stand by you.”
Gunnar bowed his head, smiling painfully. “Ah. Honour.” He paused. “There are worse bases to build a new nation on. Communism, for one. And the myth of the Yngling, for another. Between them they turned the uptime into a hell on Earth.” He saw that Håvard was about to speak, and held up a hand for silence. “No, hear me out. You should know why I do this.”
“This plague is not an anomaly, not a mistake. It is the only possible outcome of our premises – the premise of the entire uptime world, Yngling, Alliance, and Comintern: That power comes only from the sword. We were all opposed to each other, but we all believed this. We all believed that honour is a word to cloak the hand that holds the dagger. And in our own time we were right. That is the world that would create new diseases, and test them on rebellious villages, and label them carefully, storing them against the day that the power to kill was next needed. ”
“We said then that we stood on the shoulders of giants; but we were wrong. We killed all our giants, and boiled the flesh from their bones to feed our troops. Then we fashioned the bones into clubs to beat our enemies. We stood in the midst of wealth beyond dreams, and complained that we were too poor – which was true, for we spent all our gold on weapons. That is the world we built, we and the Comintern between us. That is the world that comes when your premises have no room for honour. And that is the poison I’ve brought back here, half a millennium before its time.”
“Well. Enough’s enough. I’m finished in Europe, and so quite likely are the rest of the Secret Hird; and good riddance. But the dream of power, that lives on. The Bretons, the Germans, the Georgians – we’ve shown them the way, and they are quick learners. I’m heading west, over the sea; and where I land, I’ll build a new country. One founded on honour, where men will keep their word, and remain true to their salt. One where the dream of power is known for the glittering poison it is. Will you follow me?”
“Whither thou goest.”