April 4th, 1815
Helgasdatter farm, north of York, Norse Law
After two weeks of walking through the liberated Norselaw, Edouard was no longer surprised at being greeted by unsmiling men with dogs, holding muskets ready. Norwegian rule in these lands was still new, and ragged remnants of the Breton XXI Legion – men who had served for twenty years in the occupation forces, who had no homes in Africa – maintained a guerrilla resistance from the Pennines, not to mention the plain old bandits, broken men from both sides. The Ynglinga Hird would establish order in a year or two, no doubt; administrators and men were being shipped in daily from the Americas. But for now, the squires looked to their defenses. There was no lack of weapons in this land. The Hird had been shipping in muskets in secret for years, and the rising of the Yorkshire Ynglings had been the disaster that sealed the fate of the XXI Legion, preventing their retreat to London.
They saw no threat in a one-armed man, though, and his clothing was scarcely recognisable as a Breton officer’s uniform anymore. When he gave Gunhild’s name, they let him through. Perhaps they thought him an informant or courier for the resistance, which had in effect become the local government; the Helgasdatter farm was a center for it. If so, they were in a sense correct; the Armee Brezhoneg did not intend to be taken by such surprise again. At any rate, it was unlikely that a beggar would ask for the mistress of the house by name.
He had imagined his reunion with Gunhild many times on the transport to Egypt; once in Africa he had indeed found that the Egyptian maidens consoled his heart, not to mention the strain of fighting inexhaustible numbers of Georgians. Later, after he lost his hand and was assigned to the Intelligence section, he had thought of her again; but now he consciously pushed all those scenarios out of his mind. The one thing they had in common was that they were all sure to be wrong in detail; having thought of the generalities would be helpful, but he needed his attention on the real meeting in front of him, not in the preliminary planning.
He found her by the third inmark field, which was halfway through plowing – and instantly, as he had expected, all his imagined meetings went up in smoke. Not for Gunhild, who was much as he had remembered her – tall, blonde, dressed today in white linen which left her arms bare and glistening with sweat in the early summer sun. No, it was the plow that surprised him, a double-sided monstrosity drawn, apparently, by two huge smoke-belching engines on either side of the field. Or so he surmised, for in fact the plow was sitting still in the middle of the field while Gunhild expostulated with a man in a greasy overall, who held a wrench like a crucifix to defend against a vampire.
“Look, Vidkun, I understand that you’re a great inventor who studied in Edinburgh and that your shit doesn’t stink; and I understand that I’m an ignorant farmer who doesn’t know thermodynamics from animal husbandry. And I understand that your machine is a great boon that will plough a field three times as fast as horses using only half the labour, and with a deeper furrow at that. Fine! But the fact remains that your gearing system does not fucking work! It can’t stand the strain! That’s the third time your machine has stripped a gear today; at five riksdaler each, that’s the labour and fodder costs for plowing my entire acreage for the next ten years. And I’ll not hear a word about rocks in the fields; if your machine can’t plough the kind of fields we’ve actually got, what bloody use is it? Now. Get this piece of shit off my field, and we’ll have the horses and Mikkel again and actually get this done before sunset. As for you, you’ll go work on your transfer system until it can stand the strain, and we’ll try it again. Gears are a stupid idea anyway, they’re too expensive; use a wheeled belt like a sensible engineer. We won’t plough the new fields until next week, you’ll have until then. But today you’ve had your chance. Out! Out! I’ve got seeds to get in the ground!”
She turned angrily away from the inventor, and her eye fell on Edouard, not favourably. “And what do you want? I give you fair warning, if you’re another damn theory-headed inventor, I’ve got all of that I want for this year. Well?”
“Actually, I’ve come to collect a debt.”
Gunhild’s eyes narrowed. “A debt, is it? I don’t recall owing any debts to one-handed beggars…” She trailed off, then enlightenment struck. “Edouard?!”
He bowed. “Just so, ma cherie.” He had called her that in his youth, when they met in the glade. She had smiled to be so addressed, and deftly extracted information on the workings of the XIV Legion, its regimental officers and battalion strengths. And then Norway had stabbed Brittany in the back, gone over to the Georgian side at the worst possible moment and delivered the Med to the enemy in exchange for the Norselaw; and Gunhild’s betrayal of him must have had some small part in the decision. His heart burned at the memory, but he let no sign of it show in his face.
She glanced at his left sleeve, which hung empty where the Georgian musket ball had left remnants for the surgeon to cut off before they mortified; then took in the state of his uniform and his air of not having eaten for a while. “You’ve not been having a good war, it seems.”
“No. Nor has Brittany. But, as you once said, that fistful of earth is all we hold of Norway, now. And so – here I am.”
She raised an eyebrow at him. “Some of us count England-south-of-Thames as Norwegian land, too.”
He let his shoulders slump, just a bit. “Yes, I know. But it is not your heartland, your settled pale, like the Norselaw. And… if the truth were told, I’m not sure where else to go.”
“No family lands in Africa? No estates manned by a thousand slaves?”
“Oh yes. In Egypt, which writhes under the Georgian yoke.”
“Ah so.” Her face softened in sympathy. “I understand. Well – I make no promises. We are none of what we were, six – has it been so long? – six years ago. But I give you guest-right, for a week or two – let’s say, until the ploughing is done. We’ll see where we go from there.”
He smiled at her in relief. A foot in the door, by God! Even in two weeks he could gather quite a bit of information on the workings of the Yngling councils in Yorkshire; and who knew, perhaps she might let him in her bed again. It hadn’t been only for his information’s sake that she slept with him, after all. And she was still lovely.
A note on language: It was pointed out to me that ‘mon cher’ is the male version, and that Edouard in speaking to Gunhild would actually say ‘ma cherie’. Fair enough, I edited it. Now, some of you are getting out your fancy keyboards, with the European letter sets, to point out that one of those letters ‘e’ should have a little accent thingamajig. In the interest of pre-empting such pointless discussion, I hereby give the Word Of God to the following effect: Writers of Brezhoneg in the Yngling-secundus timeline have had four centuries of being enervated by the relentless heat of Africa, and consequently have given up on graves, acutes, cedillas, diareses, the wearing of berets, and pretentious little beards as being just too much damn effort. Such, alas, are the effects of living in a decadent slave society, where honest labour eventually comes to be seen as being beneath the dignity of free men.