King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 5, 6, 7

“And the graduale?”

“All agree that it too is the sign of a god, but none was very sure what god it might be. The name they gave was ‘Rig,’ which I think is one of their words for ‘king.’ It is like our word mis, or the Spaniards’ reje. All say without exception that no other man wears it, except some of the slaves rescued by the one-eye, who wear it as a sign of their gratitude to him. If he did not wear it, the sign would never be used at all.”

Both men fell into a reflective silence. Eventually the tailor, putting his pile of clothing aside, rose stiffly to his feet.

“I think we may have to return home, brother. This is news that we must share. A strange king, wearing a sign personal to him alone, the same as our holy graduale, though with rungs reversed, as a token of devotion to the King. Surely this must have some meaning.”

The other man nodded, more doubtfully. “At least we can get the stink of the lowlands out of our nostrils, and breathe cool air again. And wake without the salat ringing in our ears.”

He paused. “As they became drunk, the small Northerners said again and again that to them this man is not just their king. They call him ‘the One King.’ ” He spat neatly through the window. “Whatever he may be, they are apostates and idolaters.”

“To the Church,” the tailor replied, “so are we.”

Brand settled his massive shoulders back against the walls of the room with a contented sigh. He had been sure that the English, at least, had managed to get hold of strong drink somehow. But every time he had approached one of the pygmies, they had gone into their usual state of glassy-eyed denial. Finally, pocketing his pride, he had edged over to Cwicca and Osmod, and appealed to them as former companions, guests, and shipmates to let him in on the secret.

“Just you, then,” Cwicca had finally said.

“And you can bring Skaldfinn,” Osmod had added. “We have trouble understanding them most of the time. Maybe he can get a bit more out of them.”

They had been guided deftly out of the crowd leaving the flying demonstration and taken into a little shabby room: where, Brand had to admit, they had been given, cheerfully and without a word of payment, surprising amounts of good red wine—good as far as Brand could tell, since he had not drunk wine a dozen times in his life. He emptied his pint pot and passed it forward for more.

“Aren’t you supposed to be looking after that priestess-female?” inquired Cwicca.

Skaldfinn scowled. “Don’t call her that. She just says she is. She hasn’t been accepted.”

Brand looked round as if surprised to note that Svandis was not present. “I suppose so,” he muttered. “She makes me feel cold just looking at her. Daughter of the Boneless One! I knew she existed all right, there was a good deal of talk about it. I just hoped the whole Hel-spawn family was dead.”

“But you are supposed to be looking after her,” pressed on Cwicca. He and Hund, born and bred within twenty miles of each other, had a strong fellow-feeling. If Hund and his master Shef accepted the woman, the rules and rituals of the Way would not count for much with him.

“She’s safe enough,” said Osmod. “Find her own way back, I dare say.” He too waved his mug at their smiling hosts for a refill. “In some towns, I know, woman wanders off, she’ll end up raped in an alley with a sack over her head. Not here! Chop your hand off as soon as look at you, and other bits too. And the Cadi’s men everywhere.”

“Cursed noisy woman,” grumbled Brand. “Not sure six drunken sailors isn’t what she needs.”

Skaldfinn retrieved Brand’s mug and tipped half the contents of it into his own. “I don’t like the woman,” he said, “but you’re wrong there. Six drunken sailors isn’t a tenth of what she’s met already. And it hasn’t done her any good at all.

“But she’ll make her own way back to our quarters right enough,” he added pacifically. “She’s got no choice. Doesn’t speak a word of the language. Any language they speak here.” He turned and called out to their hosts in the bastard Latin, studded with Arab words, which he had already recognized as their native dialect.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry