King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 23, 24, 25, 26

“And if the One King has ceased to believe in his gods?” asked Thorvin, “That need not mean they have ceased to believe in him. For they come from other minds besides his. Let me try my potion. But one thing first. The woman—keep her out of the way. It comes to me that she too has power on the other side, like her father, the boneless one, the were-dragon.”

The priests looked at each other, looked at the dying fire, nodded in wordless agreement.

Shef took the cup that Hund handed to him, looked not at its contents but into the eyes of his friend—his childhood friend, now perhaps his rival or his enemy.

“This will make me dream of my father?”

“It will make you dream the way you used to.”

“What if my father has no message for me?”

“Then you will know that, at least!”

Shef hesitated, drained the cup. It tasted musty, old. “Now I am not sure I want to sleep.”

“Stay awake then. The visions will come either way.” Hund took the cup, walked away without another word. Shef felt deserted, alone. Svandis had vanished, no-one knew where. Brand and the others were avoiding him. He sat in a small room by the dockside, hearing dim whoops and cheering as the catapult crews celebrated their victory over the Greeks and over the “War-Wolf.” He wished he could join them.

After a while the room faded from his eyes, began to be overlaid with strange sweeps and spirals of color. He found himself examining them with manic attention: as if, by doing so, he could prevent himself from being pulled on to what he knew was waiting.

As if his eyes had cleared, Shef found himself staring into an enormous face. The nose alone was bigger than he was, the eyes were like black pools, the lips curled back to reveal monstrous teeth. The face was laughing at him. With a crash sound came to his ears, and he staggered beneath the gale of laughter that blew towards him. He was like a mouse, Shef felt. Like a mouse caught on a table-top when the owner of the kitchen returned. He span round, crouched, looked for a point of hiding, began to move.

A slam, and something was over him. A hand. Light gleamed at the bottom of it, and as he moved towards the opening, two fingers came through, a thumb and finger, and picked him off the table-top as if he had been a cherry. The thumb and finger closed round him, not forcefully, not yet. They only had to squeeze, he knew, and his guts would force their way out of his mouth and anus like a man crushed between a launched longship and its rollers.

The face was looking at him, still with manic glee. Shef could see, even from this terrible vantage, that the face was mad. Not mad, but crazy. It was the face of the man he had seen staked out for the serpent to spit its venom on. The man his father had loosed, and whom he had avoided on the giant stairway by the gods’ orm-garth. It was the face of Loki. Loki unbound. Loki as the gods had made him.

“My brother’s little favorite,” teased the voice in a bass rumble so low he could barely hear it. “He loosed me, but I do not think he meant me to catch you. Shall I squeeze you now and end his plans? You do not believe in me, I know, but you will die in your sleep just the same. And some part of you will stay here with me, for ever.”

Shef could make no reply, kept looking round. His father Rig? The other gods? Surely Loki had many enemies.

“Or I could throw you to my pets,” the voice went on. The hand tipped Shef so he could see down, to what lay beneath the table. A crawling mass of serpents, that twined round the mad god’s legs. From time to time they struck at him, he could see the fangs bared, smell the poison. “I have swallowed so much venom I feel it no more,” laughed the voice. “And there are my other pets, you have seen some of them before.”

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Categories: Harrison, Harry