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

But meanwhile, the new ships had even a brick fireplace amidships, screened from the wind and the spray! Shef’s nostrils flared to the smell of thick sausage soup, remembering again the terrible belly-pinch of his past. For all men say, he thought again, as he did many times, there is no virtue in hardship. Virtue in being able to endure it, maybe. But no-one gets better for practice.

His comfortable reflections were cut short by sudden turmoil from the fore-castle: men’s voices raised, and in the middle of them—impossible, at sea—what sounded like the shrieking of a woman. An angry woman by the sound of it, as well. Shef turned for the rail and headed swiftly along the ship’s seventy-foot length.

It was a woman, sure enough, but what caught Shef’s eye in his first astonished instant was the sight of his childhood friend Hund the leech, standing in front of Ordlaf the skipper and bodily thrusting him back. Hund was among the slightest of men, and moreover quiet and gentle almost to a fault. To see him thrusting aside the burly Ordlaf was barely credible.

Even less credible was the sight of the woman herself. For an instant Shef’s eye caught the copper hair, flash of blue eyes—they brought back a memory of some kind—but then he could notice nothing beyond her dress.

Slowly his brain took in what his eye had already registered. She wore what was certainly an imitation of the dress of a priest of the Way. White wool, bleached again and again. Round her neck a pendant, but not one he could readily recognize. Not a leech-apple, not a smith-hammer. A ski, for Ull? No: a feather, badly-crafted, but a quill nonetheless. And round her waist, certainly, a girdle of the sacred rowan-berries.

Shef became conscious of Thorvin standing by his side. Realized too that the shouting and pushing had ceased, quelled by his appearance and his fixed stare.

“Is she with you?” Shef asked Thorvin disbelievingly. “Do you have priestesses now?”

“Not with me,” came a grim voice in reply. “She has no right to wear any of our marks or tokens. They should be stripped from her back, aye, shift and all.”

“And then what?”

“And then over the side with her,” cut in Ordlaf. “Who ever heard of a woman aboard ship?” He caught himself a moment later. “I mean to say, a distaff-bearer.”

Shef had noted the spread of the haf-words among his seamen, even the English ones who had been brought up as Christians, like Ordlaf. Brand and his men were adamant that it was the worst of luck at sea to mention women, or cats, or Christian priests, except for the terrible luck that would be brought by sailing with one. They would not mention parts of their own ships in ordinary language either, but carefully used separate ritual terms. Now Ordlaf was doing it. But his reflections were interrupted again by a closer stare at the woman in front of him. Absently he waved to Hund, pushing forward protectively, to stand back and let him see her plain.

“I have seen you before,” he remarked. “You hit me. You hurt me. I remember now. It was at Bedricsward, by—by the mighty one’s camp. You were in the tent, the tent I cut open, the tent—” Shef hesitated. He could remember no ruling from Brand on this point, but something told him that Ivar the Boneless was a name as likely to annoy, or to attract, the sea-hags of Ran the goddess of the deep as any mention of women or cats. “The tent of the pale man,” he finished lamely.

She nodded. “I remember you too. You had two eyes then. You slashed the tent open to rescue the English girl, and seized me because you thought I was her. I hit you and you let me go.” She spoke English with a thick Norse accent, Shef noted, as bad as Brand’s. But she did not speak it quite like him, nor like so many of the followers of the Way, edging towards a language common to both Norse and English. She was a Dane. A pure Dane, he guessed. Where had she come from?

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Categories: Harrison, Harry