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

“Because you have heard them from Thorvin,” said Svandis. “If you dreamt stories that Thorvin had not told you, that might mean something. Maybe only that you had made them up out of things you yourself have seen and felt. But do you not think that Arabs dream of Allah, Christians of their own stories of saints? Your visions are like the gods themselves. People make both of them up out of their own needs and beliefs. If we stopped believing—then we would be free.”

Shef examined the idea with care and doubt. It seemed to him that sometimes he had seen the vision before he knew the story. Svandis would say that he had forgotten something, got the story backwards. Certainly he had no way of proving different. And she might be correct. Everyone knew that sometimes dreams were caused by the events of the day, or even by sounds that men heard in their sleep and turned into a story. The stoutest Viking had dreams of fear, often he had heard men muttering in their sleep.

“So there may be no Ragnarök,” he wondered. “No Loki loose. I have been deceiving myself all along. If I could believe that, things would be much easier for me. And there would be no truth in visions.”

“There is no truth in visions,” Svandis said forcefully, determined to carry her point and make a convert. “Gods and visions are nothing but illusions, which we create to make ourselves slaves.” She pressed closer in the cool night, leant forward to look up into Shef’s one eye, her breast nudging against his arm.

Far to the north, at the Wisdom-House of Stamford in the English midlands, night had not yet fallen. Instead the stone tower with its many outbuildings lay in the long gray twilight of an English early summer. From the hedged fields nearby the heavy scent of flowering hawthorn drifted. Faint laughter came from the outskirts of the town where farm-churls and craftsmen, milking and ditching and trading done for the day, sat for the last hour before full dark with pint pots in their hands. Children played around their fathers in the dusk, and younger folk, men and women, exchanged glances and faded sometimes into the dark of the comforting fields.

At the Wisdom-House itself, the forges had fallen silent, though red light came still from banked fires. A priest strode across the central courtyard, intending to call on his friends, draw them out to drink mulled ale and discuss their experiments and their discoveries. As he turned the corner by the stone tower he stopped short.

On a bench in front of him sat Farman priest of Frey, most famous of the priests in England for the number of his god-visions, rivaled in the world only by Vigleik the Norwegian. Farman sat easily. His eyes were open, but he seemed unseeing. Cautiously the priest who had come upon him moved closer, saw that Farman’s eyes did not move from their fixed unblinking stare. He stepped back quietly, went to the corner again, waved urgently for others to join him. After a while a score of Way-priests stood in a semi-circle round their un-moving colleague, apprentices and laymen chased away. They waited unspeaking for him to move.

His eyes blinked, he stirred on the bench, became aware of those around him.

“What did you see, brother?” asked one of them.

“At the end—at the end I saw a tree, and a serpent in it. Before the tree there stood a woman, one of great beauty. She was holding out an apple to a man, and he—he was stretching his hand out to it. And all the while the serpent watched, and its forked tongue flickered out and in.”

No reaction from the Way-priests. None of them had read the Christian books, they knew nothing of Satan, of Adam and Eve and the Fall of Man.

“But before that, before that I saw something of more mark. Something the king must hear of.”

“The One King is not here, brother,” a priest reminded gently, knowing that those coming out of the vision needed time to recover themselves.

“His deputy. His partner.”

“King Alfred is his partner. He presides over the council of aldermen. There is no deputy.”

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Categories: Harrison, Harry