King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 3, 4

Their king safely out of the way for a long morning, his closest advisers and friends had seized the opportunity to discuss him. They sat, the three of them, Brand, Thorvin and Hund, near the top of the great stone tower of the House of Wisdom, in Thorvin’s private chamber, looking out over the busy and fertile countryside, the green fields divided by the long white strip of the Great North Road, riders and carts passing steadily along it. With them, though, and at Thorvin’s insistence, sat a fourth man: Farman priest of Frey, one of the two great visionaries of the Way. An unimpressive figure, and one who had not shared the perils of the others, but deep in the secrets of the gods, or so Thorvin insisted.

Brand the giant Norwegian had looked askance at Farman for a while, but he had known the others, at least, long enough to speak frankly. “We’ve got to face it,” he began. “If he goes, Shef I mean, then everything will go. There’s people like Guthmund, owes everything to the One King, stone-cold reliable as far as he’s concerned. But would Guthmund agree to co-operate with Olaf, or Gamli, or Arnodd, or any of the other kings in Denmark or Norway? He would not. His own jarls wouldn’t let him if he did. As for obeying an Englishman… No, this is a one-man business. The trouble is, the man’s mad.”

“You’ve said that before,” said Hund the leech reprovingly, “and been proved wrong.”

“All right, all right,” Brand conceded. “Maybe he’s not mad, just strange, he always has been. But you know what I mean all the same. He has won many battles and survived many strange events. But each one seems to take something out of him. And it isn’t put back.”

The other three considered the matter: Hund the leech, priest of Ithun and Englishman, Thorvin the smith, priest of Thor and Dane, Farman the visionary, a man whose race was by now forgotten.

“He lost something when he killed Sigurth,” volunteered Hund. “He lost that lance. None of us knows how he came by it, exactly, but he valued it for some reason or another. They say it is the lance the new Emperor always carries with him, and Hagbarth says he saw the two fight, and Bruno run off with it. Maybe it is the good luck sign that the Christians call it, and that is what he has lost.”

Brand shook his head decisively. “No. We have experts on luck here, and he has not lost that. He is as lucky as he ever was. No, it is something else. Something to do with how he feels about himself.”

“He lost friends that day at the Braethraborg also,” Hund suggested again. “The young man from the Ditmarsh, and Cuthred the champion. Could he feel—guilty, maybe, because he lived and they did not?”

Brand, the veteran warrior, chewed on the thought, not much liking the taste of it. “I have known things like that,” he conceded eventually. “But I don’t think that’s it. To tell the truth”—he looked round before going on. “I think it’s to do with that damned woman.”

“Godive, Alfred’s wife?” said Hund, shocked. He had known them both since all three were small children.

“Yes, her. She talks to him as if he was a dog, and he flinches like one that has been beaten too often. But not just her. There was the other one too, Ragnhild, the queen in Norway. She took something from him. He did not kill her, but he caused her death, and her son’s. If he feels guilty it is not about the men he has hurt, but about the women. That’s why he will not take another one.”

A silence. This time it was Hund’s turn to chew on a thought and not relish the taste of it.

“Talks to him like a dog,” he said in the end. “My name means ‘dog,’ as you know. My master, Shef’s stepfather, thought that was all I would ever be to him. But he gave Shef a dog’s name too, in hatred. We see new folk smile all the time when they hear us say ‘King Shef,’ as if we were saying ‘King Bowlegs’ or ‘King Fang.’ Norsemen cannot even pronounce it. You know Alfred has asked him several times to take another name, one that both English and Norse could say and honor: Offa or Atli, some hero-name from the past. Yet you say his is a hero-name, Thorvin? Perhaps it is time you explained that to us. For I feel whatever is happening here is the gods’ business as well as ours. Tell us the whole story. And tell us why the Way has accepted him in the end, as the One who is to come. The three of us here, after all, know more of his story than anyone else in the world. And Farman is our guide to the gods. Maybe between the four of us we can judge it.”

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Categories: Harrison, Harry