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

Shef himself had closely examined every part of the Greek fire contrivance in the captured galley, noted its tank of fuel, sniffed and tried to taste the strange stuff inside it, examined slow-match, brazier and bellows, worked the handle of the strange pressure-pump that seemed to be vital for its operation. He had not ventured to test the device. I will send you fire, Loki had said, and he had. That did not mean Shef had to use it, or to pay Loki’s price.

One day, perhaps, he would bend his energies to the task of forcing the skilled Greeks to break their oath of silence. Just now he was content to know that he had the strongest naval force on the Inner Sea, capable of driving off the Greek fleet even in a flat calm, and of bringing it to battle and sinking it at any other time. Besides, he reflected, the very sight of the copper dome on one of his ships, and the Greeks would hesitate to close. He had, once more, the technological lead which for a while had been threatened. In short, while the Emperor ruled the land, he ruled the sea. His escape-route was clear. Should he choose to take it.

It was other matters, now, which occupied him. Matters which seemed without urgency, mere questions for philosophers, but which his instinct told him must now be settled. Settled before he found himself taking the bait of Loki. He had thought long about the scene Rig had shown him, of Loki and Logi, of Loki the giant and Loki the god. In the priest-conclaves of the Way, the bale-fire always burned inside the circle. Should the fire-god not be inside the circle too?

He had called, then, a conclave, in the shaded court where he had had translated the heretics’ book. To it were bidden the priests of the Way, the four who had sailed with him, Thorvin, Skaldfinn, Hagbarth and Hund, and with them Farman the visionary who had seen the need for the new fleet and brought it with him. His executive officers, Brand and Hardred, Guthmund and Ordlaf, two English and two Norse. And in addition Solomon the Jew, and Svandis, once again in the provocative display of Way-priest white. Of the eleven men and one woman present, all but two wore the pendants of the Way: Solomon the Jew, and Hardred, who like his master Alfred had never given up the Christianity in which he had been raised. With deliberate purpose, then, Shef had made the table at which they sat an oval one, like the oval in which Way-priests held their conclave. He had not ringed it round with the holy cords and the rowan-berries of life, nor had he lit the bale-fire by which the priests timed their meetings. But behind him, in the sand, he had planted a seven-foot battle-spear, in conscious appeal to the Othinic symbol of the Way. He saw the priests looking at each other as they caught the imitation—was it mockery, or challenge?—of their own ceremonial.

He rapped the table with a knuckle. “I have called you here to consider our future plans. But before we do that, we must draw some lessons from what has happened already.”

He looked round the table, fixed his eye on Svandis. “One thing we know now is that Svandis was wrong. She told me, she told us all, that there were no gods, that they were created by men out of the wickedness of their hearts, or their own weakness. And that the visions they have sent me were mere dreams, created by my own brain as a hungry man dreams of food, or a frightened one of what he fears. Now we know that the last, at least, is not true. Farman, thousands of miles away, saw our trouble and came to help us. His vision was true. But it was a frightening one. For what he saw was what I have seen, seen now three times. Loki loose. Loki unbound from his chains. Ready to loose Fenris-wolf from the bond of Greipnir and bring Ragnarök on the world.

“So we must think again about the gods. They do exist. And yet Svandis may not be wholly wrong. For the gods and their worshipers do have something to do with each other. I turn to Hund. Tell us all, Hund, not only those you have told already, what is your view of the gods.”

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