Alexius agreed to. So Hereward withdrew to a remote part of the Empire, the whereabouts of which were known only to the Emperor and a few men he trusted. He has been there for over twenty years and is now a very old man.’

‘That is quite a story, Godwin of Ely. I am grateful to you for sharing it with me. Now that my father has entrusted me with the Talisman, I wonder if you would return it to Hereward of Bourne for me?’

‘But I am sure he would want you to wear it, my Prince.’

‘I am flattered, but I don’t think it is necessary. Your story has taught me all I need to know about kingship. I think I understand the Talisman’s message.’ Prince John Comnenus placed his hand on Godwin of Ely’s shoulder. ‘I hope I can live my life as bravely and nobly as Hereward of Bourne did.’

‘You have made a good beginning, my Prince. Your father is a great Emperor and an even better man. You seem to have many of his qualities. Follow his advice, live by his example, and you will become a worthy successor. Byzantium will flourish under your reign and you will leave a legacy that will be remembered for generations to come. But remember, you are only a man; even emperors are mortal. Lives, even great ones, soon become memories. Learn from the past, but live your life in the present and hope that the future will benefit from what you do on earth.’ The old man leaned over and grabbed the Prince’s arm. ‘Remember, once your time is over, it has gone for ever.’

As the Old Man of the Wildwood had become wise beyond the grasp of ordinary men, so the Old Man of the Mountain had acquired extraordinary intuition and insight. Now he was able to guide the young prince, as his mentor had once guided him.

Prince John Comnenus, deep in thought, looked to the east towards his home in Constantinople. He realized that the story of Hereward, Thegn of Bourne, would always be with him. He hoped that when his reign as Emperor came to be judged by history, his deeds would stand comparison with those of Hereward, England’s last and finest warrior.

Leo of Methone abruptly interrupted his contemplation.‘My Lord Prince!’

John Comnenus turned back towards Godwin of Ely. His eyes were closed and he seemed very still.

The three men rushed to his side to rouse him, but the drama of his long life was finally over.

Godwin was facing north-west, towards England, and looked content. As he died, he would have been remembering those he loved. The faithful Edwin, the young envoy; Ingigerd and Maria, the family’s heart and soul, and their lovely daughters, Gwyneth and Wulfhild; Edmund of Kent, who finally committed Abbot Thurstan to the fate that he deserved; mighty Einar, his loyal second-in-command; Alphonso of Granada, the finest soldier he had ever known; Martin Lightfoot, a mercurial companion who could sing as well as he could fight, and whose stories filled their lives with humour; and his delightful daughters, Gunnhild and Estrith, whose love and understanding nursed him through the terrible ending of the Siege of Ely.

Finally, he would have thought of Torfida, the remarkable woman whose life had shaped his own. The prediction made by the Old Man of the Wildwood had come to pass; she did indeed become his guide and his inspiration, and it was her destiny to help him find his.

He would also have been contemplating his homeland; a realm he must have assumed had already forgotten him. In truth, he had changed it more than he could have imagined. His legacy would be generations in the making, but would be part of a new England, where the storytellers would one day call Hereward of Bourne ‘The Last of the English’.

In fact, he was not the last of his kind; he was the foremost. He was ‘The First of the English’.

John Comnenus organized an honour guard for the funeral. A soft piece of ground was chosen, not far from where they had spent the long days and nights of storytelling, and Godwin of Ely — for that was now his name — was buried facing England.

Men of the Varangian Guard dug a deep grave, so that he would never be disturbed, and so that they could place in it all his precious belongings.

Leo blessed each one as it was arranged around his body: the neatly wrapped robe of a Captain of the Varangian Guard of the Old Order; an awesome arsenal of weapons, including his English battle-shield in ash, his Byzantine bronze shield and his father’s sword; his personal standard in gold, crimson and black; and his astrolabe, a gift from Rodrigo of Bivar and the lodestone that he always carried.

The Great Axe of Goteborg was positioned on his chest, resting under his chin, and smaller items were laid either side of it: the Order of the Cotentin, given to him in Sicily; an array of medals awarded by the Emperor Alexius; the old iron key to Bourne Church; and his mother’s jewels, a few simple stones set in bronze.

A single gold piece from the reign of King Cnut, which King William had placed on the tomb of St Etheldreda, was put carefully into the palm of one hand. And in the other was placed a handful of bullion from the reign of Edward the Confessor, wrapped in a scroll from Osbjorn, Prince of Denmark. Finally, the Virgin Martyr’s rosary was draped over them.

The most precious items were arranged in a fine inlaid chest, a gift from John Comnenus, and placed above his head: the Roll of Honour of the Brotherhood of St Etheldreda; Torfida’s wooden inscription, his beloved’s last and most important message to him; her wedding ring of Russian gold; and her valued personal possession — a parchment map of the world.

Last of all, the Talisman of Truth, the ancient amulet that had given meaning to his life, was placed around his neck for the final time.

At the last, Prince John hesitated. He signalled to the funeral party to pause. The heir to the Purple of Byzantium then fell to his knees and reached into the grave to retrieve the Talisman from the neck of Godwin of Ely.

He turned to John Azoukh. ‘He sacrificed so much in its cause; I don’t think he would have wanted the Talisman to lie in his grave for eternity. After all, he was only its guardian. We will take it back to Constantinople; perhaps one day we’ll have need of it.’

Each of the Varangians present then took it in turns to cover the body of Godwin of Ely with the parched earth of the Peloponnese. Afterwards, Prince John ordered that everything on the hilltop be destroyed so that, in keeping with his oath to King William, no trace of his final resting place would ever be found.

Leo of Methone read an epitaph. ‘Here lies Godwin of Ely, known in a previous life as Hereward of Bourne. No nobler man has ever lived. May he rest in peace.’

John Azoukh placed a simple wreath of olive leaves on the grave.

Prince John Comnenus looked towards the north-west. ‘I would like to go to England one day. They are an interesting people; I feel certain we will hear more of them… I wonder if the domain of the Wodewose of England’s wildwoods extends all the way to the Peloponnese?

‘But I don’t suppose it matters — I’m sure he will welcome back the Old Man of the Mountain to the earth that gave him life.’

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