King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 27, 28, 29, 30

“The Arabs can always do everything, if you hear them talk. Fly, make lenses, invent algorism, make fire devices, al-kuhl, al-jabr, al-kimiya, al-qili… Thing is, they never seem to do anything with it.” Shef too had listened to Solomon and grown rather tired of it.

“Well, I’d like to get all that stuff, whatever it is, the naphtha and the phosphor and the alcool and all, and the saltpeter, and start mixing it. See what happens. And charcoal too, we all use it, why does it burn better than wood? But most of all I want to see what they’ve got up there. A fire-mountain, they say. Burning rock. And the smell. Everyone says there’s a strange smell comes from the mountain. Sulphur, they call it. But you know something, in the Fens where I come from…”

“Me too,” Shef reminded him.

“…we got this thing they call the will o’ the wisp. Fires that light and lead you into the swamp. Comes from dead bodies, they say. Well, that smells too. I’m sure we got this saltpeter at home, in barns and piggeries and what not. Maybe we got this sulphur too. I want to see it. Start putting them together.”

A pillar of fire by night and a cloud of smoke by day. That was what he had been trying to think of. It was something to do with one of Father Andreas’s lessons from the Bible. The Children of Israel escaping from bondage? Father Andreas had said it was an image of the Christian soul seeking heaven. Shef did not think the pillar of smoke they were steering for was the Promised Land, somehow. But Steffi did. Maybe Steffi was the one whose opinion would count.

For some time the fleet had been steering for a fishing-boat running easily under its light lateen sail. It had made no attempt to escape them, the word must have got round that the strangers did no harm to the poor, even paid for news. Indeed the boat was heading towards them, had now rounded and lay easily to leeward. Skaldfinn and Solomon were shouting back and forth, calling one of the fishermen on board. Shef waited for a translation to emerge in good time.

It seemed as if he had said something important. Skaldfinn was coming over with a strange expression on his face.

“He says there’s a new Pope in Rome, though the old Pope is not dead. More than that: he says the new Pope is a stranger, an alien, a foreigner. He calls him an Anglus. That’s when he spat on the deck and Ordlaf hit him.”

“An English Pope?” The word had been heard and was spreading through the crew, with general laughter and derision.

“A little man, not even a priest. The fisherman says he has proclaimed a state of holy war throughout the Empire against all heathen and heretics and unbelievers. Soon, the fisherman says, the Emperor will come with his fleet of fireships and his army of iron men and destroy all those who do not bend the knee to Saint Peter. Then Rome will rule the world.”

Fireships, thought Shef. Maybe they are not so far off after all. Nor is Rome now. He remembered unbidden the map his divine patron had shown him months before: the map that centered on Rome. Rig had told him that at Rome his troubles would cease. He had no wish to go there. Like Guthmund, his thoughts were for home.

“My grandfather Ragnar tried to sack Rome once,” said Svandis. “He sacked the wrong city by mistake, but believed it was Rome because the plunder was so great.”

“If Erkenbert is at Rome preaching holy war and another Crusade, it can only be against us,” said Thorvin slowly. “Better to fight in another man’s country than in your own.”

We have not quite three thousand men in the fleet, thought Shef, the Emperor will have many more. But mine are all picked men, crossbows and catapults and flares and even the Greek fire. They want me to fight again. But I have made my peace with Loki, or so I thought. I want to avert Ragnarök, not bring it about.

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