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

“What you need to realize, Shef, is this, and I speak now as a leech.” Hund gripped his apple-pendant to show his gravity. “That young woman has three times been hurt by fear. Once, at Bedricsward. Most of the women in that tent were killed, you know. You dragged Godive away. Svandis seized a weapon and crawled between tent-ropes where the warriors could not easily reach her. But most of them were cut down by men so blind with rage they could hardly see. She collected the bodies in the morning.

“Again, at the Braethraborg, after you stormed it. Again she had been living in safety, as a princess, her every command obeyed. Then it was blood and fire all over again, and at the end of it she was a beggarwoman. No one would take in a Ragnarsson’s daughter. If she showed gold someone would take it from her. All her kin were dead. How do you think she lived after that? By the time she found her way to me she had been through many men’s hands. Like a nun taken by a Viking band and passed round the camp-fires.”

“And the third time?” Shef asked.

“When her mother died. Who knows how that came about? Who knows how much the child saw, or heard, or guessed?”

“Is she your lemman now?” inquired Shef, trying to get to some decision.

Hund threw his hands up in disgust. “What I’m trying to tell you, you brain-sick pissabed, is that of all the women in the world she is the least likely to be anyone’s lemman. As far as she knows, if women lie with men they are likely to be disemboweled slowly, and the only good reason for doing so is in exchange for food or money.”

Shef sat back on his bench. Though his face could not be seen in the dark unlit ‘tween-deck, he was grinning faintly. Hund was talking to him as he had done when they were boys, thrall’s child and bastard together. Besides, a faint excitement stirred within him at the thought that the new woman was not Hund’s lover. A Ragnarsson’s daughter, he reflected. Now her father and uncles and cousins were all safely dead, it might be no bad thing to ally with the Ragnarsson blood. All admitted that they were of the seed of gods and heroes, however much they hated them. The Snake-eye claimed descent from Völsi and from his own namesake the Fafnisbane. There was no doubt the Danes and the Swedes and the Norwegians would respect a child sprung from that stock: even if she was a female Boneless.

He brought himself back to the moment. “If she is not your lover, why did you hide her on board?”

Hund leaned forward again, his voice dropping low. “I tell you, that young woman has more brains than anyone you or I have ever met.”

“What, more than Udd?” Shef meant the puny, slave-born stray who had risen to become Shef’s steelmaster and the most respected smith among priests of the Way: though he would never leave the House of Wisdom in Stamford again, his nerve broken for ever by the terrors he had undergone in the North.

“In a way. But in a different way. She is no smith, no metal-beater or machine-minder. She thinks deeply. Somewhere after she fled from the Braethraborg, someone explained to her the doctrines of the Way. She knows the holy poems and stories as well as Thorvin, and can read and write them. That is why she has chosen to wear a quill, though I do not know what god she wears it for.”

Hund’s voice was a whisper now. “I think she explains the stories better than Thorvin does. Their inner meaning, the true tale of Völund or of King Frothi and the giant-maids, the truth behind all our fables of gods and giants, of Othin and Loki and Ragnarök. She preaches strange doctrines to those who will listen, tells them there is no Valhalla for the good and Naströnd for the bad, no monsters beneath the earth and in the sea, no Loki and no Hel…”

Shef cut him off. “She can stay, if you wish it,” he said. “She can preach her strange doctrines too, for all I care. But you can tell her this: if she wants to persuade anyone that Loki does not exist, she can start with me. I would give heavy gold to anyone who could show me that. Or tell me his chains were sound.”

Page: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19

Categories: Harrison, Harry