King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 11, 12, 13

Convulsively he lunged upward, felt the tearing pain again near his heart. But there was nothing there. Why then could he not see? There was a band under his chin, binding his jaw up. He was buried. Or at least he had been taken for dead.

But he could see! Or at least there was a light, no, a patch of darkness less dark than the rest. Shef stared at it, willing it to increase. And there were movements coming towards him. In the terror of live burial, fear of other men had dissolved. Shef thought of nothing but attracting their attention, whoever they were, begging to be cut free. He opened his mouth, let out a faint croak.

But whoever it was had no fear of the dead, or the dead coming to life. There was a sharp point on his throat-ball, a face looking down at him. The face said, slowly and distinctly,

“How shall a man be born when he is old? Or enter again into the womb of his mother?”

Shef gaped up, terrified. He did not know the answer.

He realized he was gaping up into a face, a face lit by starlight. In the same instant he knew once again who he was, and where he was: in his hammock, slung at the very bow of the Fafnisbane for the cool rising off the water. And the face above him was that of Svandis.

“Were you dreaming?” she asked quietly. “I heard you croaking as if your throat had dried up.”

Shef nodded, relief flooding through him. He sat up carefully, feeling the cold sweat soaking his tunic. There was no one else nearby. The crew granted him the small privacy of the space beyond the catapult platform.

“What was it about?” she whispered. He could smell her hair very close to his face. “Tell me your dream.”

Shef rolled soundlessly from his hammock, crouched face to face with the girl, the daughter of Ivar whom he had killed. He felt the awareness of her as a woman growing stronger every second, as if the years of sorrow and impotence had never visited him.

“I will tell you,” he whispered with sudden confidence, “and you shall interpret it for me. But I will do it with my arms round you.”

He embraced her gently, felt an instant resistance, continued to hold her as she felt the sweat of fear on him. Her rigid stance seemed to thaw, she let him draw her down on to the deck.

“I was lying on my back,” he whispered, “wrapped in a shroud. And I thought that I had been buried somewhere and left. I was terrified…” As he spoke, Shef slowly drew up the hem of her dress, pulled her warm thigh close to his own cold body. She seemed to feel his need for comfort, began to co-operate, to press closer to him. He pulled the dress higher, the white dress of a priestess corded round with red berries, pulled it higher yet, still whispering.

Chapter Thirteen

From all directions the levies converged on the rock of Puigpunyent, where a tense and raging Emperor directed them as they came in, either to strengthening the ring upon ring of sentry-posts set in the ravines and thorny scrub all around, or to the ever-growing gangs of pickax-men who, stone by stone, were dismantling the towers and walls of the heretics’ fortress.

A hundred miles to the south, admiral Georgios and general Agilulf stared puzzledly at each other as they digested the order to halt, return, cease the pressure on the Arab forces, abandon the search for the vanished Northern fleet: return at once with every man and every ship.

Little further to the south, the Caliph himself, taking the field in the service of the Prophet for the first time for many years, pressed forward at the head of the greatest army Cordova had sent out since the days when the forces of Islam had tried to conquer France and the lands beyond it, to be turned back by Charles whom the Franks called “the Hammer,” Martel.

And crossing the Bay of Biscay came a force small in comparison with the others in numbers of ships and men, but their superior in the new qualities of range and weight of missile: the fleet of the One King, of England and the North, drawn from all its blockade stations against the Empire and sent south on the word of Farman the seer. Twenty mule-armed two-masters, thirty longships pacing them, packed with the unemployed and impatient warriors of the North, all laden as deep as they could be pressed with beef and beer and biscuit for the appetites of more than two thousand men. Alfred had accepted Farman’s vision-warning, but refused the expedition command, saying England must not be left kingless: the fleet sailed under the orders of Gold-Guthmund, sub-king of the Swedes, once known (and still well-remembered) as Guthmund the Greedy.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry