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

“Unless one of their friends picks them up,” muttered Shef.

“Do you want to turn into a man like my father?” Svandis hesitated for a few moments. “After all, they say you too are elgi einhamr, not a man of one skin. Because of what you see in dreams. Will you tell me about them? What was it that gave you those marks on your thigh the other night? They looked like the bite of a poison-adder. But you did not swell up and die. And the marks have gone now.”

Shef hitched his tunic, stared at the place on his own thigh in the faint starlight. There was nothing there now, nothing that could be seen anyway. Perhaps he should tell her. He could feel the warmth of her body, comforting in the cool of the night, could catch the faint scent of woman, making him wonder for an instant what it would be like to hold her, plunge his face between her breasts. Shef had never in his life known comfort from a woman, held at arm’s length by his mother, deprived by fate of his one love Godive. He felt a temptation to relax into it. Shrugged the temptation aside immediately. Eyes watched them, to put his head down and appeal for an embrace like a crying child would not be drengiligr, warriorly. Still, he could talk.

Quietly he began to tell her the details of his last dream. The stair. Feeling like a mouse among humans. The giant coming up the stair, his boots stamping. The monstrous serpent that came up after him, following the god Loki, as he was sure the giant had been. The orm-garth of the gods, with the snakes underfoot and the one that struck at him.

“That is why I believe in the gods,” he ended. “I have seen them, I have felt them. That is why I know Loki is loose and set on vengeance. As if I needed to know, after Sumarrfugl.”

Svandis was silent a while, for which he was grateful. She seemed to be thinking about what he said, instead of merely shouting it down. “Tell me,” she asked finally, “was there anything in the dream that reminded you of something you had seen before? Something you might have been thinking about before you slept. The boots, for instance. The boots of the god coming up the stair. You said you saw them.”

“The boots? They were like Brand’s boots.” Shef laughed, told her how as they marched through Cordova he had seen an amazed Arab looking Brand up and down, from his enormous feet to the helmet on his head. How he had barely been able to believe that such feet belonged to a human.

“So you had a picture like that already in your head? What about the snakes? Have you seen an orm-garth?”

Shef felt a prickle of doubt and suspicion once more. This was the daughter of Ivar, after all, the grand-daughter of Ragnar himself.

“I saw your grandfather die in the snake-pit,” he said briefly. “Did no one ever tell you? I heard him sing his death-song.”

“He used to hold me on his knee and sing to me,” said Svandis.

“He used to grow his thumb-nail long to gouge men’s eyes out with,” replied Shef. “My friend Cuthred tore it out with pliers.”

“So you have seen a snake-pit too,” Svandis went on, “and seen a man die in it. Were you very frightened then? Did you imagine yourself in the pit?”

Shef thought for a while. “What you are trying to tell me,” he said, “is that these visions of mine—I do not call them dreams—do not come from the gods at all. They are made up in my own head out of things I have seen, or been frightened by. They are like a story, a saga. One told by a fool, with no beginning or end and only bits of connections to each other. They do not feel like that. They feel—much bigger than that.”

“Because you are asleep,” said Svandis. “You are not thinking correctly.”

“Anyway, the visions I see—they are visions of the gods! They tell the stories that I have heard from Thorvin, of Völund and Skirnir and Hermoth and Balder.”

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Categories: Harrison, Harry