King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 31, 32, 33, 34

The gods were looking down at him from Asgarth, without pity or concern, but with interest and calculation. There was his father Rig, fox-face and cunning eyes. Völund, the lame smith whose place Shef had once taken, once a man but taken to Asgarth for his skills. In front of them all, the one-eyed Othin, who had been Shef’s enemy and the supporter of his enemies. The one standing next to him: yes, he could tell the marks of pain and poison on his face, but they seemed smoothed out, half-healed. Of all the faces he could see, Loki’s was the one least hostile. Least human, too. Not for nothing was he the father, and the mother also, of the monster-brood. Shef had brought monsters into the world as well.

“He hangs as you once did, father,” said Loki. “You hung for nine days, to gain wisdom. It is too late for him to gain it.”

“He may not gain it,” replied Rig. “He has bred it in others.”

“As you did when you bred from Edda and Amma and Mothir, mother and grandmother and great-grandmother,” said Loki, truthful but sharp-tongued. “You cuckolded their husbands, made a better breed. But this one’s seed dies with him. What good is that?”

“Not quite with him, it may be,” said Rig.

“In any case,” growled Völund the hamstrung, inventor of flight, “his true seed is not of the body, Loki. His sons are the slaves become men. Udd the steelmaster and Ordlaf the seaman. Cwicca the kitemaster, who wears my token now. Steffi with the squint who wears yours. You should thank him, Loki. You are freed and growing strong, and you will grow stronger, but you would still be mad beneath the serpent’s fangs if he had not given men a reason to believe in you.”

“There will still be no sons of Shef, no Sheafings, as there have been sons of Shield, Shieldings,” said Othin.

Rig said nothing, but Heimdall heard his thought, and the dying man heard it too. Your Shieldings failed when Sigurth died, thought Rig. My son has set the world on the Sheafing path. Not of peace alone, nor war alone, but a path where our sons and daughters will be free to make themselves, and make gods in their own likeness. For good or ill, as they choose.

Maybe Völund will keep a place for me in his smithy, thought Shef, ignoring Rig’s silent thought. That would be a better place for me than the kennels of Rig my father.

The vision faded, Shef came back to the world of hot sun and pain. The sun was no longer in his eyes, it was over his head, seeming to burn even through his thick whitened hair. Would they give me water? he wondered. The Roman soldiers gave it to Jesus, I saw them do it. What of the White Christ then? I do not believe in him, but he must be my enemy now.

It was his sometime king, King Edmund of East Anglia, who came to him the next time. They had waited for death together one summer’s night ten years before. The king had gone before him, died under the knife and chisel of Ivar and his blood-eagle. He had come to Shef as he too lay in pain from his half-blinding, imagining then that he hung from Hlithskjalf with a spike through his eye, as he hung now in reality spiked through wrists and ankles. But where had the king gone? He had fought and died for his Christian faith, refused to abjure it under torture. If the White Christ could save anyone, surely it would have been him?

The king no longer held his backbone in his hand. He seemed to be looking down from far away, far further than Hlithskjalf, where the Asgarth gods watched the affairs of men with keen interest. Edmund King and Martyr had no such interest, no longer. He had gone elsewhere.

“In the beginning was the Word,” he said, his voice drifting down like ash-seeds on a breeze. “And the Word was with God.” His voice changed. “But the Word was not God. The Word was made by men. Bible, Testament, Talmud, Torah, hadith, Koran, commentary. They are the works of men. It is men who made the works of men into the words of God.”

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