Thorvin nodded, but hesitated a while, to organize his thoughts.
“It’s like this,” he said in the end. “There is a very old story the Danes tell. It has never been turned into a poem, and it is not part of our holy books, or not one that all accept. I used to think little of it as well. But the more I reflect on it, the more it seems to me that it has a ring about it, a stink of old age. I believe it is a true story, and that it has meaning in the same way that the lays of Völund or of dead Balder do.
“One way that it is told is this. Many years ago—about the time that Christians say their Christ was born—the Danes found themselves without a king. They had driven out the last of their royal line, that Hermoth who is said to be the favorite warrior of Othin in Valhalla, for his cruelties. But without a king the cruelties grew even worse. It was an age when brother slew brother and no man’s life was safe except when he had weapons in hand.
“Then one day, on the shore of the sea, they found a shield washed up, and in the shield there was a baby boy. His head was resting on a sheaf of barley, but other than that he had nothing. They took him in and reared him, and in time he became the mightiest king the North has ever known. He was so warlike that he made peace across the North. In his time, they say, a virgin could walk unescorted from one end of the North to the other, with gold on every finger and a bag of it at her girdle, and no man would stay her or offer her so much as a foul word. Danish kings still claim, some of them, to be of his line, the Skjöldungar, the Shieldings, for he was called Skjöld after the shield they found him in.
“That is one story,” Thorvin went on, “and you can see it makes a kind of sense. The shield gives the name, the Shieldings. And because the boy came from nowhere men say that the gods sent him, because they saw the misery of the Danes and pitied it.
“But in other ways it does not make much sense, and that is why I think it is genuine. Yes, Brand, I see you raise your eyebrows, but what I am telling you is that the good sense of the gods is not the same as the good sense of men. Consider: the gods pitied the misery of the Danes? Since when do our gods pity anything? We would not worship them if they did. And anyway, what about this sheaf? It is always in the story, but no one knows why. I think that is the key to understanding.
“I think that the story as we have it has been told wrong, over the years. I think the name of the king was once heard as Skjöld Skjefing, or in English Scyld Sceafing. Some storyteller somewhere took the name and made a story out of it. He said the king was called ‘Shield’ because—why, because he had floated to land on a shield. And he was called ‘Sheafing’ because—because there must have been a sheaf with him. The names came from the things. Even the story about floating to land came from the idea of the hollow shield. Now, I do not think any of that was true.
“Instead I think there was a real king called ‘Shield.’ Many of us have names like that. Your name, Brand, means ‘sword.’ I have met men called Geirr, ‘spear,’ or Franki, ‘battle-axe.’ There was a king called Shield. He was called Sheafing not because of having his head on a sheaf, but because he was the son of Sheaf. Or Shef.”
Thorvin seemed to think he had finished his explanation.
After a while Hund prompted him further. “But what does this story, this old story, mean?”
Thorvin fingered his hammer pendant. “In my view—and this is not shared by others of the College, indeed some would call me a heretic if they heard me say it, Farman, as well you know. In my view it means three things. One, these kings were remembered, or invented, for a reason. I think the reason is that they set our world on a track, a track it had not gone before. I think the war-king who made peace, Shield, he was the one who organized men into nations and gave the North law: law better than the strife of brother against brother that they had had before. I think the peace-king, Sheaf, gave us barley and crops and fields, and turned us from the ways of our ancestors, who lived like the Finns, hunting in the waste. Or like your cousins the Huldu-folk, Brand. Meat-eaters and wanderers.