King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 8, 9, 10

King and Emperor. Chapter 8, 9, 10

Chapter Eight

What do you mean, you don’t know where the Nithhögg-gnawed woman is? I told you not to let her out of your sight!”

Brand, never used to being spoken to in this way since the day his beard had first begun to grow, clenched his massive fists and started to rumble a reply. By his side, almost two feet shorter, stood Hund, his face anxious both at the disappearance of Svandis and at the growing confrontation between a guilty but unapologetic Brand and an angry, overburdened Shef.

All round them turmoil reigned. The Northerners had been assigned a whole courtyard, a kind of barracks by the banks of the Guadalquivir. Now men ran in and out of every door, the air was filled with shouts of rage and inquiry. Gear accumulated on the sanded courtyard floor, with men standing guard over it against comrades who might be inclined to remedy their deficiencies at the expense of someone more careless. Viking skippers and English captains of crossbow platoons counted their men and tried to work out who was missing.

“Look at the goats’-turd mess,” Shef shouted on. “Twelve men missing, Skarthi says some bastard’s sold half the oars for his ship—the oars, for Christ’s sake, I mean Thor’s sake—and the towel-heads screaming at me all the time to get moving, get back down river, the Christians are coming with a fleet and an army and Loki knows what. We’ll get back to the ships and find they’ve already been burnt to the waterline without throwing a rock because everyone’s asleep. And now I have to stop and look for some useless woman because you couldn’t keep your hands off the beer-bottle!”

Brand’s rumble turned into a growl, he thrust both hands firmly into his belt in an attempt to keep from strangling his king, lord and former crew-carl, Hund ludicrously stepped between the two much bigger men in an attempt to hold them back: Shef realized that the grinning faces watching the confrontation were now looking over his shoulder. He turned.

Through the gates of the courtyard, still in the early morning shadow, stepped Svandis. Her veil was still discreetly pulled across her face. As she met fifty hostile stares, set in a growing silence, she stripped the veil back. The pale ice-water eyes glared out over a set jaw. Brand clutched his belly instinctively, with a low moan.

“Well, she’s back,” said Hund soothingly.

“Yes, but where has she been?”

“Out tomcatting,” muttered Brand. “Out all night. Probably some Arab picked her up for his harem and then realized she wasn’t worth the trouble. Don’t blame him.”

Shef considered the angry face in front of him, looked sideways at Hund. In his culture every woman was the property of some man, husband, master, father, brother. For one to stray sexually was above all a matter of disgrace for the man. In this case, as far as he could see, if Svandis had an owner it was the man who had taken her as apprentice, Hund. If he seemed unaffected, or undisgraced, then no harm was done. In any case, Shef reflected, he had a strong feeling that Svandis had not seized an unwatched moment to find herself a new lover, whatever Brand thought. She seemed far more angry than flirtatious, for all her beauty. From what Hund had told him, or hinted to him, that was only natural.

Svandis braced herself for a torrent of abuse, and probably blows, the normal consequence of what she had done. Instead Shef started to turn away, turned back and remarked, “Well, as long as you’re safe,” seized Brand by the arm and began to drag him away towards the pile of stacked oars which Hagbarth was counting once more in an attempt to get a definite answer.

The fury she had been hatching as a protection burst out. “Don’t you want to know where I’ve been?” she shrieked. “What I’ve been doing?”

Shef looked over his shoulder. “No. Talk to Hund about it. One thing, though. What language were you talking? Skaldfinn was dead sure you wouldn’t find an interpreter except for Latin, which you don’t know.”

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Categories: Harrison, Harry