The face passed by, the feet continued their steady climb. And then they stopped. Stopped level with Shef’s head. He held his breath, conscious suddenly of the beating of his heart, that seemed to pound like a drum inside the echo-chamber of the little wooden crack. He remembered Brand’s huge feet, stamping up and down while the baffled Arab watched. Loki could surely smash in his fragile hiding-place with a kick.
The feet moved on, began to climb once more up towards the light. As Shef breathed again, he heard a second noise. This time it was a slither. The slither of scales across stone. He remembered the awful sight he had seen of the great head striking at him, striking and falling short before it returned to its endless task of torment. Endlessly frustrated by the gods who had tethered it just out of fang-reach. The monster-viper that was climbing now after the one who had so long escaped it had had centuries in the dark to grow in rage. And its eyes were closer to the ground than a god’s. And vipers had other senses than sight. Senses designed for catching mice in the dark. Shef remembered the blue swelling face of Ragnar Lothbrok, Ivar’s father and Sigurth’s too, as he died in the snake-pit, the orm-garth of York.
In panic he forced himself round to try to wriggle deeper into concealment. The crack was widening, he jerked his shoulder through, wondering what might be on the other side. All light had faded, but the slither behind him was coming closer and closer.
He was through. Through what he did not know, but now he was standing in a pit, and looking up. And there, far above him, was a full pale moon with markings on it like a ghastly skull. He could see a wall, a wall facing him, far lower than the cliff behind. But still far too high for him to jump and catch the edge, climb out as he might have done on to the next step of the stairway behind. In a panic now Shef began to run towards it, careless of what might see him. But as he moved there came from all around him, not just from behind, a piercing and universal hiss.
He stopped dead, aware of slithering all around him. He had escaped from Loki and the viper that pursued him. But now he was in a crawling carpet of snake-bodies. He was in the orm-garth of the gods. And there was no way to climb out.
As he stood stock-still he felt a thud striking his thigh, felt the first deep bite of the fangs, the poison spreading into his veins.
Shef sprang from his hammock in one convulsive movement, caught a foot in a cord and crashed to the deck. He was on his feet again instantly, ready to lash out in any direction, a great yell bubbling from his throat. As men around him cursed and scrambled also to their feet, groping for their weapons, he felt a brawny arm close round him, was swung momentarily off his feet.
“Easy, easy,” muttered Thorvin. “All right, the rest of you, go back to sleep. Just a dream. Just a nightmare.”
He propped Shef on the seaward rail, let him look round in the starlight and get his bearings.
“What did you see this time?”
Shef caught his breath, felt the sweat drying on him. His tunic was drenched, as wet as if he had been in the sea. The salt stung his empty eye-socket.
“I saw Loki. Loki loose. Then I was in the orm-garth, like Ragnar.” Shef began to rub his thigh where he had felt the strike of the fangs.
“If you have seen Loki loose, the College must know,” muttered Thorvin. “Maybe Farman in Stamford, or even Vigleik of the visions in Kaupang might have some counsel. For if Loki is loose we are that much closer to the doom of the gods and the coming of the Skuld-world. Maybe it is we who have stirred it up.”
“Loki is not loose,” came a cold angry voice from behind them. “There is no such thing as Loki. Or as the gods. The evil in the world comes from men alone.”