King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 3, 4

The meeting had been little better. All the way through he had been conscious of pressure, of being manipulated. What surprised him was that his advisers had been unanimous on wanting him to leave. In the past they had been anxious to hold him back from what they saw as rash expeditions. Now—though they had done so carefully—they seemed united in wanting him away. A man more interested in politics than himself might have suspected a brewing rebellion.

First it had been Brand. “The Inner Sea,” he had muttered. “It’s been done before. I don’t suppose you know this, but the Ragnarssons”—he had spat into the fire at the mention of their name—”they tried it before ever you were on the scene. Fifteen years ago, maybe, when their father was still alive. Took a hundred ships down and stayed away two years. That was when there were five of them…”

“Five?” Shef had asked. He had known only four.

“Yes. Sigurth, Ivar, Halvdan, Ubbi—and their elder brother, Björn. Björn Ironside, they called him. I quite liked him,” Brand reflected. “Not as crazy as the others. He was killed by a stray rock when they besieged Paris.

“Anyway, point is this: they went down there, came back two years later when everyone had got to thinking they were dead. Lost more than half their ships and two thirds of their men. But, Hel, did they come back rich! Start of the Ragnarssons’ power, that was. They built the Braethraborg on it. Must be good pickings down there. You don’t find gold anywhere else.”

We don’t need gold, we have silver enough, Shef had replied. But then it had been Hund, playing up the chances for new knowledge. A whole new science of the eye, he had suggested. And what of the flying man? No-one would give them any further details, but the way the story had slipped out, not intentionally, from a silly youth talking about poetry: that argued there was something in it. Something that none of them could even imagine. That was the most useful type of new knowledge. In any case, Hund had added, he had talked carefully to the Jew translator. It was clear that in the city of Cordova they had leeches who did not think twice about opening the body of their patients to cure them, something even Ingulf, Hund’s master, had done only a few times, and Hund even fewer. And he had said besides, that there were men there who did not scruple to open the skull and search the brain. He would go south, Hund had declared. It was his duty to Ithun, his patron-deity, goddess of healing.

Thorvin had said little, though he too had offered to join any expedition that might sail. Who would direct the Wisdom-House for you, Shef had asked. Farman, said Thorvin without debate, a strange answer, for Farman shared none of Thorvin’s interests in the crafts of the smith. His eyes had dwelt somberly on Shef all evening, as if wishing him to leave.

Shef stumbled into his room, dismissed the light-bearing attendants, stripped off his garments of state and threw them into a corner, rolled himself in his blankets, and wished for sleep. Even on the down mattress, so different from the boards and straw on which he had slept most of his life, sleep did not come easily. And it came haunted.

In his dream, he was looking down at a mappa. But a true mappa, different immediately from the one he himself had hanging on the wall of his great study-chamber. Even more different from the many he had seen and collected from the Christian world. Most Christian maps presented the world as a T-shape, with the unknown land of Africa as the vertical beam, with Europe as one of the crossbeams and Asia as the other, the two equal in size. And the junction-point, the pivot of the world, invariably marked as Jerusalem.

Shef’s own maps were detailed towards the North and the West, fading rapidly into vagueness in the South and the East, where he refused to indicate what had not been confirmed by reliable sources. The map of his dream was neither Christian schematic nor local record. He knew intuitively that it was true. Too jagged, unexpected, and full of needless additions to be the work of imagination.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry