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

A tilt, and Shef could see out into the open sea, where backs rose and fell. Some of them were the orcas, the killer whales who had nearly taken Cuthred and himself, had destroyed Valgrim the Wise and all his men at Hrafnsey. But they were warm-blooded beasts, almost human in their cunning and their converse. Shef could see others, mere cold eyes above monstrous teeth, and worse things below. The fear of being dragged down, of ending his life in the jaws of a thing that did not even know what it was doing came over him. He could feel the cold sweat break out on his body.

“Good, very good. Now you are afraid. But you need be less so than some. Because I can use you, mannikin. You have brought me much service already. The Greeks burn men alive, the Arabs thrust poles up them till they die. But you have brought them fear from a distance. You have brought them fear from the sky.

“And you can bring them more yet. You with your strange salts and your strange machines. There is more there than you will ever learn. But you could set men on the right path. My path. And if you do, you can have my favor. I could not help my favorite whom you killed in the water, Ivar Bane-of-Women, for I was bound. But now I am free. Is there no revenge you wish for, like Ivar, like me?

“No,” said Shef, his voice like a thin bird’s piping, a mouse’s squeak in the cat’s paw. He was not conscious of any courage. Loki had asked him a question. He knew the answer. It would do no good to lie.

The crazy face stared down at him. Shef found himself trying to imagine what it would have been like without the scars and pits of poison, the bitter marks of resentment. Like looking at a scarred and defeated old warrior, and wondering what he might have been like if his life had gone aright. The finger and thumb were pressing tight around him, but they had not squeezed yet.

“See there.” Shef found himself staring up an immense bridge, a bridge that was at the same time a rainbow, and at the end of it a cold glitter of blades. “The gods, my father and my brothers, they have gone back over Bifrost bridge, and Othin has called out his Einheriar to man it. They expect me to storm it, with my allies the giants and my children the monster-brood. Why should I not?”

“It was your home once, lord. Before you slew Balder.”

This time the thumb and finger were tightening, he could feel his ribs groan, ready to snap and send splinters through his heart.

“I did not mean to slay Balder. I meant them to see themselves for what they were.”

“I know that, lord. So does my father Rig. It was why he loosed you.”

The face had gone quiet, and a kind of reason was coming back into it.

“Are you trying to bargain with me, mannikin?”

“Yes, lord.”

“Then what is your offer?”

“I do not know yet, lord. To give you a footing again in Asgarth?”

“You cannot give me that,” said the voice of Loki. “But maybe you can give me something. Listen then to my offer. Do my wishes. Make more fire, make more machines, be my follower and not Rig’s, turn your back on the Way and bring terror to the world. And in exchange I will give you more than my father Othin ever offered. He gives his favorites success till he chooses different, like Sigurth Snake-eye, whom you gave to death when his shoelace tripped him. I would give you success till you died, old and terrible. Think of the men at your command. Think of the women you can take. All that can be yours.

“Now here is my token. Above all else you want the fire. I will send it to you, and with it a hope beyond your hope. When it comes to you, say to the Greek: ‘It is best on a winter morning.’ See him grovel.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry