A craftsman, visionary, and warrior, Shef has risen from slavery to become king of a mighty Viking nation. But his growing kingdom menaces all of Europe, and he has made many powerful enemies.Chief among his enemies are the Knights of the Lance, a fanatical order of soldiers sworn to bring Shef down, no matter what the cost. To defeat Shef, they will go to extraordinary lengths to find the sacred spear of Christ--and resurrect the Holy Roman Empire.Driven by dreams, Shef battles to change the course of history, but even the gods themselves may be plotting against him.... At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.
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March 15, 1996
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Excerpt from One King's Way by Harry Harrison
Frozen in the hard grip of the worst winter in memory, all of England lay under a frigid mantle of snow. The great river Thames was covered with ice from bank to bank. The road leading west to Winchester was a flint-hard, filthy track of frozen hoofprints and caked manure. The horses slipped on the ice, snorting out steaming vapors. Their riders, huddled and chilled, looked up at the dark walls of the great Minster and spurred their tired mounts with little result.
This was the 21st of March of the year of our Lord's Incarnation 867, and a day of greatest portent. A royal union was taking place today. Filling the pews were the military aristocracy of Wessex, every alderman, thane, and high-reeve who could possibly be squeezed within the stone walls, gaping and sweating, a low mutter of explanation and translation continually rising from them, watching intently as the whole elaborate ritual of coronation of a Christian king unrolled its stately dance.
In the right-hand pew at the very front of the nave of the great Minster at Winchester was Shef Sigvarthsson, co-king of the English--and king in his own right of all those parts of it north of the Thames which he could persuade into obedience. He sat uneasily, aware of the many eyes on him.
They saw a man whose age was hard to guess. His thick dark hair and smooth-shaven face made him seem young, too young for the gold circlet of royalty on his brow and the heavy bracelets on both arms. He had the height and the broad shoulders of a warrior in his prime--orof an ironsmith, which was what he had been. Yet for all his youth the dark hair was already streaked with white, and his face showed the betraying grooves of care and pain. His right eye-socket was an empty hollow, and the patch that covered it could not disguise the way the flesh had drawn and fallen in. The whole of England and half of Europe beyond knew how he had been half-blinded on the order of Sigurth Snake-eye, eldest of the sons of Ragnar. And how the smith's apprentice had taken his revenge by killing Sigurth's brother, Ivar the Boneless, Champion of the North, rising from near-thrall to carl of the Viking Great Army, to jarl under the orders of Alfred Atheling. Now to being king and co-ruler with Alfred himself, joint victors over the Frankish Crusade only the year before. Rumors ran everywhere about the meaning of the strange sign he wore round his neck as emblem of the Asgarth Way, an emblem none had worn before him: the kraki, the pole-ladder of the mysterious deity Rig.
Shef had no wish to see the coronation, still less the ceremony that would follow. The grooves of pain deepened in his face as he watched. Yet he understood why he had to be there, he and his men: to make a point, to support his co-king. It was Alfred's request, as close to a command as possible, that had brought him here.
"You don't have to take the Mass," Alfred had said firmly to Shef and his supporters. "You don't even have to sing the hymns. But I want you there at the coronation, wearing your pendants, wearing your crown, Shef. Making a show. Pick out your most impressive men, and look rich and powerful. I want everyone to see that I am supported fully by the men of the North, the conquerors of Ivar the Boneless and Charles the Bald. The pagans. Not the wild pagans, the slavers and sacrificers, like the sons of Ragnar: but the men of the Way, the Way of Asgarth, the pendant-folk."
They had at least managed to do that, Shef thought, looking about. Put on their mettle, the two dozen Way-folk selected to sit in the front ranks had responded nobly. Guthmund the Greedy was carrying more gold and silver on his person, in arm-rings, torque, and belt-buckle, than any five thanes of Wessex put together. Of course he had shared in three successive distributions of plunder under Shef, whose fame, though fabulous, was not all exaggeration. Thorvin priest of Thor and his colleague Skaldfinn priest of Njorth, though opposed to worldly display, had nevertheless dressed in shining white and brought with them their signs of office, the short hammer for Thorvin and the seaman's boat for Skaldfinn. Cwicca, Osmod and the other English freedmen now veterans of Shef's campaigns, though hopelessly unimpressive in person from youthful hunger, had managed to dressthemselves in the unheard-of luxury of silken tunics. They also carried carefully sloped the tools of their trade: halberds, crossbows, and catapult-winders. Shef suspected that the mere sight of men so obviously English, so obviously low-born, and so obviously rich beyond the dreams of the average Wessex thane, let alone churl, was the most powerful silent argument for Alfred's success that could be found.
The ceremony had begun hours before with the forming of a great procession from the king's residence to the Minster itself--a walk of barely a hundred yards, but every yard of them seeming to demand some special observance. Then the high mass in the Minster, the nobles of the realm crowding up to take communion, not so much out of reverence as out of an earnest desire not to miss any luck or blessing that might be granted to others. Among them, Shef had noted, had been many seemingly incongruous figures, the undersized frames and rough clothes of slaves that Alfred had freed and churls he had promoted. They were now here to take the word back to their towns and villages: the word that there was no doubt, no doubt at all that Alfred Atheling was now Alfred King of the West Saxons and of the Mark, by all the laws of man and of the Christian God.
Also in the first row, towering over those around him, sat the Marshal of Wessex, the man chosen by custom as the most notable warrior of the kingdom hand-to-hand. The Marshal, Wigheard, was indeed an imposing sight, nearer seven foot than six and twenty English stone if an ounce in weight; he carried the king's state sword at arm's length as effortlessly as a twig, and had already shown uncanny ability to fence with a halberd as if it were a willow-wand.
There was one man in Shef's group, sitting immediately to his left, who had difficulty following the ceremony, who glanced again and again at the Champion. This was the giant Brand, himself champion of the men of Halogaland, still wasted and shrunken from the belly-wound he had taken in his duel on the gangplank with Ivar the Boneless, but slowly regaining strength. Brand, shrunken as he was, still seemed the bigger man of the two. His bones were almost too big for his skin, with knuckles like rocks, and ridges jutting out over his eyebrows like armor. Brand's fists, Shef had once noted by careful comparison, were bigger than a pint pot: not just huge, but disproportionate even to the rest of him. "Men grow big where I come from," was all that Brand would ever say.
The noise of the congregation died as Alfred, now thoroughly blessed and prayed over, turned to face them to take his oaths. For the first time Latin was abandoned and the service broke into English asAlfred's senior alderman asked the solemn question: "Do you grant us our rightful laws and customs to be held, and do you swear after your power to grant rightful dooms and defend the rights of your people against every enemy?"
"I do." Alfred looked round the packed Minster. "I have done so, and I will do so again." A rumble of assent.
Now a trickier moment, Shef thought as the alderman stepped back and the senior bishop stepped forward. For one thing the bishop was startlingly young--and for good reason. After Alfred's dispossession of the Church, his excommunication by the Pope, the Crusade against him and his final declaration of non-communion with Rome, every senior cleric in his kingdom had left. From the Archbishops of York and Canterbury down to the least bishop and abbot. Alfred's response was to promote ten of the best remaining junior priests and tell them the Church in England was in their hands. Now one of them, Eanfrith Bishop of Winchester, six months before priest of a village no-one had heard of, came forward to ask his question.
"Lord King, we ask you to grant to us protection for Holy Church and due law and rightfulness for all those who are members of it."
Eanfrith and Alfred had been days working out the new formula, Shef recalled. The traditional one had asked for confirmation of all rights and privileges, tithes and taxes, ownerships and possessions--all of which Alfred had in fact taken away.
"I grant protection and due law," Alfred replied. Again he looked round, again added words beyond tradition. "Protection to those within the Church and without it. Due law to members of it and to others."
The highly trained choristers of Winchester, choirmonks and choirboys together, burst into the anthem of Zadok the Priest, Unxerunt Salomonem Zadok sacerdos, as the bishops prepared for the solemn moment of blessing with the holy oil, after which Alfred would be literally the Lord's Anointed, against whom rebellion was also sacrilege.
Shortly, thought Shef, would come the difficult moment for him. It had been explained to him very carefully that Wessex, ever since Queen Eadburh of wicked memory, never had a Queen, and that the King's wife could have no separate coronation. Nevertheless, Alfred had said, he was insistent that his new wife should be accepted by him in front of the people, in honor of her courage in the defeat of the Franks. So, he had said, after the donning of the regalia, sword, ring and scepter, he meant his wife to come forward and be named beforethe congregation, not as Queen, but as the Lady of Wessex. And who better to lead her to the altar than her brother, Shef, also his co-king?
Who might have to yield his kingdom to the child of Alfred and the Lady, if he had no child himself.
This would be the second time he had given her away, Shef thought bitterly. Once again he must forget the love, the passion that had once bound them. The first had been to a man they both hated, and in punishment for that, it seemed, he must now hand her over to a man they both loved. As Thorvin nudged him with a mighty elbow, to tell him the time had come to step forward and lead the Lady Godive with her train of maidens to the altar, Shef met her eyes--her triumphant eyes--and felt his heart turn to ice.
Alfred might now be a king, he though numbly. He himself was not. He did not have the right, or the strength.
As the choir broke into the Benedicat he decided that he would do it. Do the thing he wanted to, not just what he felt was his duty. He would take out the fleet, the new navy of the co-kings, to work out his inner anger on the enemies of the realm: the pirates of the North, the fleets of the Franks, the slavers of Ireland or Spain, anyone. Let Alfred and Godive find their own happiness at home. He would find peace in drowned men and shattered ships.
Earlier this same day, far to the north in the land of the Danes, a simpler and more terrifying ceremony had taken place.
It had begun before dawn. The bound man lifted from where he lay on the floor of the guard-hut had long since ceased to struggle, though he was neither a coward nor a weakling. Two days before, when the emissaries of the Snake-eye had marched into the slave-pen, he had known what would be in store for the man they chose. When they picked him from the others, he had known also that the least chance of escape was to be seized, and he had seized it: secretly gathered the slack in his wrist-chains as they marched him off, waited till the guards were hustling him over the wooden bridge that led to the inner heart of the Braethraborg, the stronghold of the three last sons of Ragnar. Then struck suddenly to his right with the chain, and hurled himself for the rail and the swift river beneath it--at the best to swim for freedom, at the worst to die his own man.
His guards had seen many such desperate attempts. One snatched at his ankle as he lunged for the rail, two others had him pinned before he could recover. They had beaten him systematically with their spear-shafts, not in malice, but to ensure he would be too stiff andbattered to move swiftly again. Then taken off the chains and replaced them with rawhide thongs, twisting and wetting them with sea-water to dry even tighter. If the bound man could have seen his fingers in the dark, they would have been blue-black, swollen like a corpse's. Even if some god intervened to save his life, it would be too late now to save his hands.
But neither god nor man would intervene. The guards had ceased to acknowledge his existence when they talked among themselves. He was not dead, because for what he had to do a man was needed with the breath, and especially the blood, still in him. But that was all. There was no need for anything else.
Now, at the end of the long night, his guards carried him out of the longhouse where the great fresh-tarred flagship lay, and down the long row of rollers that led down the slipway to the sea.
"Here will do. This one here," grunted the burly middle-aged warrior in charge.
"How do we do it?" asked one of the others, a young man without the campaign-marks, the scars and silver arm-rings of the others. "I've never seen this done before."
"So watch and you'll learn. First, cut that rawhide round his wrists. No, don't worry," as the younger man hesitated, looked round automatically for any slightest glimpse of an escape, "he's a goner, look at him, couldn't even crawl if we let him go. Don't let him go, mind. Just cut his wrists free, right."
A few minutes of sawing, and the bound man staggered as the lashings freed, stared a moment in the pale but growing light at the hands in front of him.
"Now lay him out flat on that roller. Belly down. Feet together. Now see here, young Hrani, because this is the important bit. The thrall has to have his back upwards, for why you'll see very shortly. He can't have his hands behind him, same reason, and he mustn't be able to move. But he mustn't be able to stop himself moving either.
"So what I do is this." The middle-aged leader pressed his captive's face down on to the solid pine trunk he lay on, seized both arms and dragged them forward above his head, till the victim looked like a man diving. He pulled a hammer and two short iron spikes from his belt.
"We used to tie them, but I think you get a better roll like this. I saw something like it once in one of the Christers' churches. Course, they put the nail in the wrong place. Half-wits."
Grunting with effort, the veteran began to hammer a spike carefully through the junction of wrist and hand. Behind him, there came arustle of many men moving. Against the dawn-light of the east, dark shapes began to show. Spears and helmets silhouetted against the sky where the sun would soon show its first glimmer on this, the first day of the warriors' new year, when day and night were the same length.
"He's taking it well," said the young man as his instructor started to hammer in the second spike. "More like a warrior than a thrall. Who was he, anyway?"
"Him? Just some fisherman we picked up on the way back last year. And he's not taking it well, he can't feel a thing, his hands have been dead for hours.
"Soon over now," he added to the man now firmly nailed to the log, patting his cheek. "Speak well of me in the next world. This could go a lot worse if I bungled it. But I haven't. Just lash his legs down, you two, no need for another spike. Feet together. He's got to turn when the moment comes."
The little group got to their feet, leaving their victim stretched out along the pine-trunk.
"Ready, Vestmar?" said a voice behind them.
The space behind them had filled up while they worked. At the rear, away from the shore and the long sea inlet, lay hump after hump of dark shapes, slave-pens, workshops, boathouses, and in dimly-sensed ranks the rows of regular barracks that housed the trusted troops of the sea-kings, the sons of Ragnar--once four, now three. From the barracks the men had come streaming, all men, no women, no youths, to see the solemn spectacle: the launch of the first ship, the start of the annual campaigning season that once again was to bring terror and ruin to the Christians and their allies of the South.
Yet the warriors hung back, ranking themselves round the inlet's shore in a deep semi-circle. Pacing down to the very shore itself came only three men, all tall and powerful, men in their prime, the three remaining sons of Ragnar Hairy-Breeks: Ubbi the grizzled, despoiler of women, Halvdan the redbeard, the fanatical dueller and champion, dedicated to the warrior's life and code. Before even them, Sigurth the Snake-eye, so called for the whites that surrounded every part of his eye-pupils like the gaze of a snake: the man who meant to make himself King of all the lands of the North.
All faces were turning now to the east, to see if the first glimpse of the sun's disk could be seen on the horizon. Most years, here in Denmark in the month the Christians called March, only cloud. Today, good omen, clear sky, with just the light haze already turned pink by the still-invisible sun. A slight murmur came from thewatchers as the readers of omens came forward, a stooped and aged band, clutching their holy bags, their knives and knucklebones and sheep's shoulder-blades, the instruments of divination. Sigurth watched them coldly. They were necessary, for the men. But he had no fear of a bad divination, a poor set of omens. Augurs who augured badly could find themselves on the sacrifice-stone as well as any other.
In the dead, intent silence, the man stretched out on the pine-log found his voice. Pinned and lashed as he was, he could not move his body. He strained his head back, and called out in a choked voice, aiming it at the midmost of the three men by the shore.
"Why can you do this, Sigurth? I was no enemy of yours. I am no Christian, nor man of the Way. I am a Dane and a freeman like yourself. What right have you to take my life?"
A roar from the crowd drowned his last words. A line of light showed in the east, the sun poking up over the near-flat horizon of Sjaelland, eastmost of the Danish islands. The Snake-eye turned, threw back his cape, waved to the men in the boathouse above him.
Instantly a creaking of ropes, a simultaneous grunt of effort, fifty men, the picked champions of the Ragnarsson army, throwing their mighty weight on the ropes attached to the spiked rowlocks. Out from the boathouse loomed the dragon-prow of the Snake-eye's own ship, the Frani Ormr itself, the Shining Worm. Grinding forward along the flat on the greased rollers prepared for it, ten tons of weight on a fifty-foot keel made of the stoutest oak-tree in Denmark.
It reached the top of the slipway. The pinned man craned his neck sideways to see his fate looming against the sky, and clamped his mouth shut to avoid the scream welling from inside him. One thing only he could avoid giving his tormentors, and that was the joy of a good omen, a year launched in fear and despair and shrieks of pain.
The men heaved at the ropes together, the prow tipped and began to slide down, thumping over each roller in turn. As it ground down towards him, as the projecting prow reached over him, the sacrifice called out again, meaning it in defiance: "Where is your right, Sigurth? What made you a king?"
The keel struck him accurately in the small of the back, rode over him and crushed down with its immense weight. Involuntarily, the breath pressed from his lungs in a weird cry, turning into a shriek as pain overcame any possible self-control. As the ship roared over him, its haulers running now to keep up, the roller to which he was nailed whirled round. The blood of his crushed heart and lungs spurted up, driven out by the massive rounded keel.
It splashed upwards on to the flaring bow planks above him. Theaugurs watching intently, crouched low so as not to miss any detail, whooped and whirled their fringed sleeves in delight.
"Blood! Blood on the planks for the sea-king's launch!"
"And a cry! A death-cry for the lord of warriors!"
The ship surged on into the calm water of the Braethraborg fjord. As it did so the sun's disc rose fully above the line of the horizon, sending a long flat ray beneath the haze. Throwing aside his cape, the Snake-eye seized his spear by the butt and lifted it up above the shadow of the boathouse and the slipway. The sun caught it and turned its eighteen-inch triangular blade to fire.
"Red light and a red spear for the new year," roared the watching army, drowning out the augurs' shrilling.
"What made me a king?" shouted the Snake-eye to the passing spirit. "The blood I have shed, and the blood in my veins! For I am the god-born, the son of Ragnar, the son of V�lsi, the seed of the immortals. And the sons of men are logs beneath my keel."
Behind him his army ran, crew by crew, towards their waiting ships, to take their turn by the stronghold's crowded slipways.
The same chill winter that held fast to England had fallen also on the other side of the channel. In the cold city of Cologne, on this same day, as Alfred was being crowned, eleven men met in a bare unheated room of a great church hundreds of miles to the south of the Braethraborg and its human sacrifice. Five of them wore the purple and white of archbishops' rank--none, as yet, the scarlet of a Cardinal. Slightly behind and to the right of each of the five sat a second man, each of these dressed in the plain black robe of a canon of the Order of Saint Hrodegang. Each was his archbishop's confessor, chaplain and counselor--of no rank, but of immense influence, with the best hope also of succeeding to the dignity of a Prince of the Church.
The eleventh man also wore the black robe, this time of a mere deacon. He looked covertly from side to side at the assembled gathering, recognizing and respecting power, but unsure of his own place at the table. He was Erkenbert, once deacon of the great Minster at York and servant of Archbishop Wulfhere. But the Minster was no more, sacked by the enraged heathen of the North the previous year. And Wulfhere, Archbishop though he remained, was a mere pensioner of his fellow-archbishops, an object of contemptuous charity like his co-Primate of Canterbury. The Church in England was no more: no lands, no rents, no power.
Erkenbert did not know why he had been called to this meeting.He did know that he was in deadly danger. The room was not bare because the great Prince-Archbishop of Cologne could not afford furniture. It was bare because he wished to have no cover for any possible eavesdropper or spy. Words had been said here that would mean death for all present if repeated.
The group had eventually, slowly, cautiously, come to a decision, feeling each other out. Now, the decision made, tension slackened.
"He has to go, then," repeated Archbishop Gunther, the host of the meeting in Cologne.
A circuit of silent nods around the table.
"His failure is too great to overlook," confirmed Theutgard of Trier. "Not only did the Crusade he sent against the province of the English meet defeat in battle ..."
"Though that itself is a sign of the divine disfavor," agreed the notoriously pious Hincmar of Rheims.
" ... but he allowed a seed to be planted. A seed worse than defeat for one king or another king. A seed of apostasy."
The word created a momentary silence. All knew what had happened the year before. How under pressure from both the Vikings of the North and his own bishops at home the youthful King Alfred of the West Saxons had made common cause with some pagan sect--called, so they heard, the Way. Had then successively defeated the dreaded Ivar Ragnarsson of the Vikings, followed by Charles the Bald, Christian king of the Franks and deputy of the Pope himself. Now Alfred ruled unchallenged in England, though sharing his dominions with some heathen jarl whose name seemed almost a joke. But it was no joke that in retaliation for the Crusade sent against him by Pope Nicholas Alfred had declared the Church in England out of communion with the Catholic and Apostolic Church of Rome itself. Even less of one that he had stripped the Church in England of its lands and wealth, allowing Christ to be preached and served only by those who were prepared to earn their own livings by free offerings, or even--it was said--through supporting themselves by trade.
"For that defeat, and that apostasy, he must go," repeated Gunther. He looked round the table. "I say, Pope Nicholas must go to God. He is an old man, but not old enough. We must hasten his departure."
Now that the words had been spoken aloud a silence fell; it was not easy for princes of the Church to talk of killing the Pope. Meinhard, Archbishop of Mainz, a fierce, hard man, spoke in a loud voice. "Have we any way to do that?" he queried
The priest to Gunther's right stirred and spoke. "There will be no difficulty. There are men we can trust in the Pope's entourage at Rome.Men who have not forgotten that they are Germans like ourselves. I do not recommend poison. A pillow in the night. When he does not waken his office can be declared vacant without scandal."
"Good," said Gunther, "for though I wish his death, I take my oath before God that I wish Pope Nicholas no harm."
The group looked at him with faint signs of scepticism. All knew that only ten years before Pope Nicholas had deposed Gunther and deprived him of his see as a penalty for disobedience. As he had done also to Theutgard of Trier, while he had further rebuked and overruled even the pious Hincmar over a dispute with a mere bishop.
"He was a great man, who did his duty as he saw it. I do not blame him even for launching King Charles on his ill-fated Crusade. No, there is no harm in Crusades. But he made a mistake. Tell them, Arno," he added to his confessor. "Tell them our appreciation of the situation." He sank back, lifting the gold goblet of Rhenish wine on which so much of his archbishopric's revenue depended.
The younger man pulled his stool forward to the table, his sharp face gleaming with enthusiasm beneath close-cropped blond stubble. "Here in Cologne," he began, "we have made careful study of the arts of war. Not merely on the field of battle itself, but also in its wider context. We try to think not merely like a tacticus"--he used the Latin word, though up till then all had spoken the Low German of Saxony and the North--"but like a strategos of the old Greeks. And if we think strategice"--Hincmar at least winced at the strange medley of Greek and Latin--"we see that Pope Nicholas made a critical error.
"He failed to see what we here call the punctum gravissimum, that is, the heavy point, the point of main weight, of an enemy's attack. He did not see at once that the real danger, the real danger to the whole Church, lay not in the schisms of the East, or in the struggles of Pope against Emperor, or in the naval raids of the followers of Mahound, but in the little-known kingdoms of the poor province of Britannia. Because only in Britannia did the Church find more than an enemy: a rival, a supplanter."
"He is an Easterner," said Meinhard contemptuously.
"Just so. He thinks that what happens here in the West, here in the North-West of Europe, in Germany and Frankland and the Low Countries, is of minor importance. But we know that here lies destiny. The destiny of the Church. The destiny of the world. I dare to say it, if Pope Nicholas does not: the new chosen people, the only true bulwark against the barbarians."
He ceased, his fair face already flushing with pride.
"You will find no arguments on that score here, Arno," Guntherremarked. "So, once Nicholas is dead, he must be replaced. I know"--he raised a hand--"the Cardinals will not elect anyone to Pope who has any more sensible opinion, and we cannot expect to sway the Italians to sense. But we can sway them to nonsense. I think we are all agreed that we will use our revenues and our influence to ensure the election of someone we can count on to be popular with the Romans, well-born among the Italians, and a complete nonentity. I believe he has already chosen his papal name: Adrian II, they tell me.
"More serious is what must be done closer to home. Not only Nicholas must go. King Charles too. He also has been defeated, and by a rabble of peasants."
"Gone already," said Hincmar decisively. "His barons will not forgive humiliation. Those who did not share it with him cannot believe that Frankish lancers could be defeated by slingers and bowmen. Those who did are anxious not to share his disgrace. There will be a rope round his neck or a knife in his ribs without us stirring a hand. But who is to replace him?"
"Your pardon," said Erkenbert quietly. He had been listening with the greatest care, and slowly the conviction had come to him that these men, unlike the pompous and inefficient clerics of the English Church he had served all his life, actually respected intelligence more than rank. Juniors spoke without rebuke. They put forward their own ideas, and had them accepted. Or if they were rejected, it was with reason given, and after careful thought. Among these men, the only sin was to fail in logic, or in imagination. The excitement of abstract thought worked on Erkenbert more than the fumes of the wine in his goblet. He felt that at last he was among equals. Above all, he wished to have them accept him too as an equal.
"I understand Low German, for it is like my own English. But allow me to speak in Latin for the moment. I do not understand how King Charles the Bald of Francia can be replaced. Or what advantage any successor would be to this group. He has two sons, am I correct? Louis and Charles. He had three brothers, Ludwig and Pepin and Lothaire, of whom only Ludwig is still alive, and--is it seven living nephews, Louis and Charles and Lothaire ..."
" ... and Pepin and Carloman and Ludwig and Charles," completed Gunther. He laughed briefly. "And what our English friend is too polite to say is that not one of them can be told from another. Charles the Bald. Charles the Fat. Ludwig the Saxon. Pepin the Younger. Which is which and what does it matter? So I will put it this way in his place.
"The seed of the Emperor, the great Charles, Charlemagne himself,has failed. The virtue is gone out of it. As we find a new Pope in Rome, so we must find a new king here. A new king's line."
The men round the table looked cautiously at each other, less cautiously as each realized that the unthinkable was being thought. Gunther smiled briefly at the effect of his words.
Greatly daring again, Erkenbert spoke. "It is possible. In my own country kings' lines have been deposed. And in yours--did not the great Charlemagne himself come to power through the deeds of his ancestors, who deposed the god-born to whom they had been servants? Deposed them and shore their hair in public, to show they were no longer holy? It could be done. What is it, after all, that makes a king?"
One man during the whole discussion had not spoken, though he had nodded in assent from time to time: the immensely-respected Archbishop of Hamburg and Bremen in the far North, the disciple and successor of Saint Ansgar, Archbishop Rimbert, famous for his personal courage in fanatical missions to and against the pagans of the North. As he stirred, all eyes turned to him.
"You are right, brothers. The line of Charles has failed. And you are wrong. Wrong in many ways. You speak of this and that, of strategy and the punctum gravissimum and the West and the East, and in the world of men what you say may have a meaning.
"But we do not live only in the world of men. I say to you that Pope Nicholas and King Charles had a worse failing than any you have seen. I pray only that we may not fall into it ourselves. I say to you, they did not believe! And without belief, all their weapons and their plans were straw and chaff, to be blown away on the wind of God's displeasure.
"So I will tell you that we do not need a new king, nor a new king's line. No. What we must have now is an Emperor! An Imperator Romanorum. For we, comrades--we Germans are the new Rome. We must have an imperator to mark it."
The others stared at him in silence, a new vision slowly forming in their minds. It was the blond-cropped Arno, Gunther's counselor, who broke it.
"And how is the new Emperor to be chosen?" he asked cautiously. "And where is such a one to be found?"
"Listen," said Rimbert, "and I will tell you. And I will tell you also the secret of Charlemagne, the last true Emperor of Rome in the West. I will tell you what it is that makes the true king."