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

Shef had ordered one of the fleet’s last barrels of ale broached, a quart served out to every man. What’s that for, someone had asked. “It is to drink the minni-öl, the remembrance ale for the men of the Marsvin,” he replied. “Drink it and think where you would be without them.” Now, guarded, warmed by a fire, his belly full of pork and biscuit, cooked careless of the defeated stragglers who might be wandering the shore, Shef sat brooding over his last pint. After a while he saw the pale eyes of Svandis fixed on him from across the fire. She seemed, for once and unusually—not contrite, but as if she might listen to another voice for a change. Shef crooked a finger, beckoned her over, ignoring the routine flash of anger in her eyes.

“Time you told us,” he said, pointing out a stone for her to sit on. “Why do you think there are no gods, only wicked men? If that’s what you think, why this mummery with white robes and rowan-berries like a Way-priest? Don’t waste my time being angry. Tell me the answers.”

Weariness and strain gave Shef’s voice a chill that brooked no defiance. In the firelight behind Svandis Shef saw Thorvin squatting on the sand, hammer in belt, and the other Way-priests with him, Suleiman the Jew next to his colleague Skaldfinn. “Well. Do you need me to tell you why I think there are wicked men?”

“Don’t be silly. I knew your father. I killed him, remember? The kindest thing you could say about him was that he was not of one skin, eigi einhamr, like a werewolf. Only he was a were-worm, I saw him on the other side. If you had to think of him as a man—well, what could you say? He cut women’s living bowels out for pleasure, the only way he knew to put bone in his prick. Wicked?” Shef shook his head, without words. “No, tell us why you think there are no wicked gods. You’re talking to a man who’s seen them.”

“In dreams! Only in dreams!”

Shef shrugged. “My mother saw one on a beach, like this, and felt him too, Thorvin says. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here.”

Svandis hesitated. She had explained her views often enough. Never in the face of such solid cast-iron certainty on the other side. Yet the fierce blood of Ragnar ran in her veins, only surging more strongly to opposition.

“Consider the gods that people believe in,” she began. “The gods my father and his brothers sacrificed to, Othin god of the hanged, betrayer of warriors, prepared always for Ragnarök and the battle with Fenris-wolf. What are the words that Othin tells us in the holy Havamal, ‘The Sayings of the High One.’ ” Her voice broke suddenly into the chant of the Way-priest:

“Early shall he rise, who will reft another’s

Life or lands or woman.”

“I know the sayings,” said Shef. “What’s the point?”

“The point is that the god is like the men who believed in him. He told them only what they wanted to know already. Othin—the High One as you call him—he is just a mouthpiece for the wisdom of a pirate, a murderer like my father.

“Think of another god. Think of the Christ-god—flogged, spat on, nailed to a cross and killed without a weapon in his hand. Who believes in him?”

“Those wicked bastards of monks,” said an anonymous voice in the darkness. “Used to be my masters. They laid on the lash all right, but no one never flogged none of them.”

“But where did the Christians start?” cried Svandis. “Among the slaves of the Rome-folk! They made a god in their own image, one who would rise again and bring them victory in another world, because they had no chance in this one.”

“What about the monks?” said the skeptical voice again.

“Who did they preach their religion to? Their slaves! Did they believe it themselves, maybe, maybe not, but it was useful to them. What good would it have done them if their slaves had believed in Othin?

“And what of the followers of the Prophet here?” she went on, pressing an advantage. “They believe in the one clear way. Anyone can join it by saying a few words. No-one can leave it without facing death. Those who join pay no taxes, but their men-folk must forever fight the unbelievers. Two hundred years ago the Arabs were sand-rats, nobodies, feared by none! What is their religion but a way of gaining strength? They have made themselves a god who gives them power. As my uncles made a god who gave them courage and fearlessness, or the Christians one who gave obedience.”

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Categories: Harrison, Harry