December 29th, 1741
Bjarte leaned back in his chair and sipped wine to soothe his raw throat, feeling every year of his age. Seventy-five years since he had come here, and the Enemy still eluded him. Soon it would be time to give up, to admit that the Enemy had proven stronger than his best effort and go down into the long dark. This winter might do it, now that Ingrid was here to take over. There was no longer a real reason to hold on. If Lena had lived, he might have given up already. But she was gone, disappeared into the Australian desert, as Vegard had gone before her, killed by the explosion of a healing spring. Gone, and left him alone to struggle on, and with nothing gained: No word of the Enemy.
He became aware that he had gotten lost in his thoughts, as old men will, and lifted his eyes to look at Ingrid, to see how she was reacting to the news that everything had gone wrong. Twice before he had given this briefing. Vegard had nodded and made suggestions on how the healing springs might be approached without setting off the traps; Lena had gritted her teeth together and begun planning expeditions to search for the Enemy’s hiding place. In the end the Enemy had got the better of them both.
Ingrid was looking at him, eyes dark with anger. He flinched despite himself; they had been lovers once, briefly, and he still remembered with respect the steely depths of rage she was capable of. She had won three duels, he recalled, to advance from the reserve to the first-line agents, against men half again her weight and reach.
“So let me understand,” she said slowly. “There is another uptime country intervening in this history. Their capabilities are unknown but probably larger than ours. Their location is unknown. Their intentions are unknown. And you have let them bamboozle you into focusing on some stupid Christian missionaries, while Norway fights to control the Atlantic!”
Bjarte glared at her. “You think we haven’t tried to take the offensive? Lena died searching for the Enemy’s hideout! Our agents were the go-betweens for the alliance that broke Georgia’s hold on the Indian Ocean coastline. Right now there are five of our people – two of my grandsons – in Georgia and Egypt, working as merchants and looking for clues. Do you think I can give you seventy-five years of tactics all in a day’s briefing?”
“Loki can rape the sodding tactics! Look, Bjarte, I know you compensate for getting fixated on one thing by doing very well at the one thing. I don’t doubt that nobody could have done a better job of fighting the missionaries and looking for the Enemy. But you’ve taken your eyes off the damned ball! England! England is the Schwerpunkt! What does it matter whether half a million peasants sacrifice to Odin or to the White Christ, if eight million slip from our rule?”
“And what do you suggest I should have done, you who weren’t here? Do you think I can walk into the Ting-hall at York – dressed up as Odin, no doubt, that would go over well in Christian England – and demand to be given command of their army?” He moderated his tone; after all Ingrid really hadn’t been here, and didn’t know the constraints. “You have to understand: Those people in England aren’t real Ynglings. They’re kind of like the English in our history – merchants, farmers, not warriors. They don’t bother us much, and we don’t bother with them, and both sides are the happier. We’ve got Scandinavia pretty well under Yngling control – real Ynglings, I mean, you and me. England, who cares?”
“Who cares about control of England and its coal? Its iron? Its harbours that dominate the North Sea and the Atlantic? Its position astride half the trade routes of the world? I care! And there is more, if you told me true. That is Yngling land. Not some ephemeral imperial possession, to be traded away at a negotiating table; our land, where men of the Yngling blood hold farms and homes! Let it be as you say; suppose the English branch have got weak and soft. Do you think they’ll stand for this? Now’s our chance! Sound the trumpets, light the beacons, send the burning cross to the deepest valleys, rouse the clans! Their blood sleeps, you say; very well, we shall call it to action. Are we not a proud warrior race? They have been defeated, forced to flee their homes and go into exile in distant lands. We shall offer them aid from under Dovre, where the ancient kings sleep; a hand shall reach out from the old country to the new, and absolve them of their shame. We’ll raise a new army from the ashes of defeat; we’ll sweep like a cleansing flame across the land. We’ll give them a rallying point and a battle cry: England shall be free! Men will flock to our standard. And the gates of Hell shall not prevail against us!”
Bjarte watched, open-mouthed. A hundred practical considerations raced through his mind: The logistics of supporting an English army from the colonies; the dozen factions of the Ting; the problem of lining up Viktorsson and Torsteinsson on the same side; the balance of power; the alliance system… but it would not matter. Ingrid had risen to her feet, pacing back and forth in excitement, and exaltation blazed from her eyes. She would not listen; she looked ready to fight a duel with anyone who objected. And besides that… it might work. Even through the utter weariness of age Bjarte could feel the pull of her, the magnetic power of the young woman consumed by an idea. Young men – yes, they would indeed flock to her standard. And if the impersonal forces of history proved too strong… they would count it an honour to lay their deaths at her feet. He shuddered. His great-grandsons were just of the age to be consumed with that flame. They would leap to fight in her crusade, to draw the sword for their living banner. Ingrid had been trained in uptime propaganda techniques. She would take that enthusiasm and forge it into the sort of discipline that shattered armies. Armies and men. The grapeshot would care nothing for the burning romance of it all. Win or lose, she would leave a trail of corpses across the English countryside.
And yet… so be it. He bowed his head, closing his eyes. There was no strength in him to fight his own. He’d spent it all on the Enemy. Not wisely, perhaps, but it was done. Let younger hands take the rudder. “It will be as you say, Ingrid.” He raised his eyes once more to meet hers. “To you, from failing hands, I throw the torch.”
She smiled, triumphant, and a flicker of the old fire burned in him. “I will keep faith.” She straightened her shoulders, as a woman might who takes on a lifetime’s burden, and walked out of the room, closing the door behind her. Faintly Bjarte could hear her calling for a horse, food, men to ride with her to Bergen. She would let no moss grow under her feet. Without her the room was darker. He drew his cloak tighter around his shoulders, feeling the cold seep into his bones. The torch had passed; it could not be long, now.