King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 14, 15

“These people here are different. They do not believe in our God at all. Or if they do, they reject him.”

“How can you reject God and reverence the crucifix?”

“I do not know. But they say—they say that to these people the God of Abraham is the devil, and that they make images of him only to defile them. And they say also”—Solomon’s voice dropped even more—”that since to them God is the devil, that they have made the devil himself their God. They are devil-worshipers. That is the talk of the hills. I do not know how they worship him or with what rites.” Solomon could not be relied on, either, Shef reflected. It was the People of the Book again. At bottom the three great religions that had come out of the East were all religions of the Book. Different books, or the same book with different additions. They despised anyone who did not hold to their book. Called them devil-worshipers. They despised him for a start, he had seen the look in the eyes of the geonim, the scholars of the Law. If they despised him, and the Way, and they despised also this strange sect of the hills—then maybe he and they had something in common. Women-haters, said Svandis. Did he hate women? They had brought him no luck, and he had brought none to them.

His eye sweeping over far distances, as the haze cleared in the sun, and the far-seer let him probe out to the horizon, Shef saw again and again flashes of bright metal down on the roads, the roads through mountain passes. He remembered what Tolman had said of what he could see at the top of his flight. Metal moving, and on the edge of sight, Tolman said, a great pyre burning.

His mind emptied, his eye reaching far into space, Shef felt the strange blankness of the waking dream come over him: a better feeling than the last he had had, the dream of the shrouded corpse. This time his father was there.

“He’s loose, you know.” There was still the tone of mirth in his father’s voice, of secret knowledge, of cleverness which he knew had no match. With it there was a new tone, of uncertainty, even of fear, as if the god Rig were realizing that he had set something in motion which even he with all his cleverness might not control.

Shef spoke back to his father, silently, in his mind alone. “I know. I saw you loose him. I saw him climbing the stair. He is mad. Thorvin says he is both father and mother of the monster-brood.” In his new mood of disbelief and defiance, he did not bother to add the question, “Why did you do it?”

An image began to form before him, not with the usual fierce clarity, but blurred, as if through the poor glass and uneven lens of a far-seer. As it formed, his father’s voice talked over it.

“The gods, you see, long long ago, in the time of your namesake, the first King Sheaf. That was when Balder was still in Asgarth. Balder the beautiful. So beautiful that all things on earth, except one, had taken the vow not to harm him. So what did the gods, my father and my brothers, what did they do to amuse themselves?”

Shef could see the answer. The god at the center, so bright-faced that it was impossible to look at him, a blaze of beauty. Tied to a stake. And around him, fierce shapes, mighty arms, hurling weapons at him with all their strength. An axe span away from the side of the god’s head, a lance with deadly triangular point rebounded from his heart. And the gods laughed! Shef could see the familiar red-bearded face of Thor turned up to the sky, mouth open in an ecstasy of mirth, as he hurled his deadly hammer again and again at his brother’s skull.

“Yes,” said Rig. “Till Loki showed them.”

Another god being brought forward to the throwing line, a blind god, Loki at his elbow. A different Loki, Shef noted. Same face, but without the marks of poison and of rage. Without the look of bitter injustice. Clever and shifty, still, even amused. The brother of Rig, there was no doubt.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry