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An alternate version of the Dark Ages is set in a Viking-conquered England, where a mighty new ruler plans to build an unstoppable navy of catapult-bearing warships while preventing his many enemies from rising against him.
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Harry Harrison is an American science fiction author best known for his character the Stainless Steel Rat and the novel Make Room! Make Room! (1966), the basis for the film Soylent Green.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
One King's Way
CHAPTER ONEFrozen in the hard grip of the worst winter in memory, all of England lay under a frigid mantle of snow. The great river Thames was covered with ice from bank to bank. The road leading west to Winchester was a flint-hard, filthy track of frozen hoofprints and caked manure. The horses slipped on the ice, snorting out steaming vapors. Their riders, huddled and chilled, looked up at the dark walls of the great Minster and spurred their tired mounts with little result.This was the 21st of March of the year of our Lord's Incarnation 867, and a day of greatest portent. A royal union was taking place today. Filling the pews were the military aristocracy of Wessex, every alderman, thane, and high-reeve who could possibly be squeezed within the stone walls, gaping and sweating, a low mutter of explanation and translation continually rising from them, watching intently as the whole elaborate ritual of coronation of a Christian king unrolled its stately dance.In the right-hand pew at the very front of the nave of the great Minster at Winchester was Shef Sigvarthsson, co-king of the English--and king in his own right of all those parts of it north of the Thames which he could persuade into obedience. He sat uneasily, aware of the many eyes on him.They saw a man whose age was hard to guess. His thick dark hair and smooth-shaven face made him seem young, too young for the gold circlet of royalty on his brow and the heavy bracelets on both arms. He had the height and the broad shoulders of a warrior in his prime--orof an ironsmith, which was what he had been. Yet for all his youth the dark hair was already streaked with white, and his face showed the betraying grooves of care and pain. His right eye-socket was an empty hollow, and the patch that covered it could not disguise the way the flesh had drawn and fallen in. The whole of England and half of Europe beyond knew how he had been half-blinded on the order of Sigurth Snake-eye, eldest of the sons of Ragnar. And how the smith's apprentice had taken his revenge by killing Sigurth's brother, Ivar the Boneless, Champion of the North, rising from near-thrall to carl of the Viking Great Army, to jarl under the orders of Alfred Atheling. Now to being king and co-ruler with Alfred himself, joint victors over the Frankish Crusade only the year before. Rumors ran everywhere about the meaning of the strange sign he wore round his neck as emblem of the Asgarth Way, an emblem none had worn before him: the kraki, the pole-ladder of the mysterious deity Rig.Shef had no wish to see the coronation, still less the ceremony that would follow. The grooves of pain deepened in his face as he watched. Yet he understood why he had to be there, he and his men: to make a point, to support his co-king. It was Alfred's request, as close to a command as possible, that had brought him here."You don't have to take the Mass," Alfred had said firmly to Shef and his supporters. "You don't even have to sing the hymns. But I want you there at the coronation, wearing your pendants, wearing your crown, Shef. Making a show. Pick out your most impressive men, and look rich and powerful. I want everyone to see that I am supported fully by the men of the North, the conquerors of Ivar the Boneless and Charles the Bald. The pagans. Not the wild pagans, the slavers and sacrificers, like the sons of Ragnar: but the men of the Way, the Way of Asgarth, the pendant-folk."They had at least managed to do that, Shef thought, looking about. Put on their mettle, the two dozen Way-folk selected to sit in the front ranks had responded nobly. Guthmund the Greedy was carrying more gold and silver on his person, in arm-rings, torque, and belt-buckle, than any five thanes of Wessex put together. Of course he had shared in three successive distributions of plunder under Shef, whose fame, though fabulous, was not all exaggeration. Thorvin priest of Thor and his colleague Skaldfinn priest of Njorth, though opposed to worldly display, had nevertheless dressed in shining white and brought with them their signs of office, the short hammer for Thorvin and the seaman's boat for Skaldfinn. Cwicca, Osmod and the other English freedmen now veterans of Shef's campaigns, though hopelessly unimpressive in person from youthful hunger, had managed to dressthemselves in the unheard-of luxury of silken tunics. They also carried carefully sloped the tools of their trade: halberds, crossbows, and catapult-winders. Shef suspected that the mere sight of men so obviously English, so obviously low-born, and so obviously rich beyond the dreams of the average Wessex thane, let alone churl, was the most powerful silent argument for Alfred's success that could be found.The ceremony had begun hours before with the forming of a great procession from the king's residence to the Minster itself--a walk of barely a hundred yards, but every yard of them seeming to demand some special observance. Then the high mass in the Minster, the nobles of the realm crowding up to take communion, not so much out of reverence as out of an earnest desire not to miss any luck or blessing that might be granted to others. Among them, Shef had noted, had been many seemingly incongruous figures, the undersized frames and rough clothes of slaves that Alfred had freed and churls he had promoted. They were now here to take the word back to their towns and villages: the word that there was no doubt, no doubt at all that Alfred Atheling was now Alfred King of the West Saxons and of the Mark, by all the laws of man and of the Christian God.Also in the first row, towering over those around him, sat the Marshal of Wessex, the man chosen by custom as the most notable warrior of the kingdom hand-to-hand. The Marshal, Wigheard, was indeed an imposing sight, nearer seven foot than six and twenty English stone if an ounce in weight; he carried the king's state sword at arm's length as effortlessly as a twig, and had already shown uncanny ability to fence with a halberd as if it were a willow-wand.There was one man in Shef's group, sitting immediately to his left, who had difficulty following the ceremony, who glanced again and again at the Champion. This was the giant Brand, himself champion of the men of Halogaland, still wasted and shrunken from the belly-wound he had taken in his duel on the gangplank with Ivar the Boneless, but slowly regaining strength. Brand, shrunken as he was, still seemed the bigger man of the two. His bones were almost too big for his skin, with knuckles like rocks, and ridges jutting out over his eyebrows like armor. Brand's fists, Shef had once noted by careful comparison, were bigger than a pint pot: not just huge, but disproportionate even to the rest of him. "Men grow big where I come from," was all that Brand would ever say.The noise of the congregation died as Alfred, now thoroughly blessed and prayed over, turned to face them to take his oaths. For the first time Latin was abandoned and the service broke into English asAlfred's senior alderman asked the solemn question: "Do you grant us our rightful laws and customs to be held, and do you swear after your power to grant rightful dooms and defend the rights of your people against every enemy?""I do." Alfred looked round the packed Minster. "I have done so, and I will do so again." A rumble of assent.Now a trickier moment, Shef thought as the alderman stepped back and the senior bishop stepped forward. For one thing the bishop was startlingly young--and for good reason. After Alfred's dispossession of the Church, his excommunication by the Pope, the Crusade against him and his final declaration of non-communion with Rome, every senior cleric in his kingdom had left. From the Archbishops of York and Canterbury down to the least bishop and abbot. Alfred's response was to promote ten of the best remaining junior priests and tell them the Church in England was in their hands. Now one of them, Eanfrith Bishop of Winchester, six months before priest of a village no-one had heard of, came forward to ask his question."Lord King, we ask you to grant to us protection for Holy Church and due law and rightfulness for all those who are members of it."Eanfrith and Alfred had been days working out the new formula, Shef recalled. The traditional one had asked for confirmation of all rights and privileges, tithes and taxes, ownerships and possessions--all of which Alfred had in fact taken away."I grant protection and due law," Alfred replied. Again he looked round, again added words beyond tradition. "Protection to those within the Church and without it. Due law to members of it and to others."The highly trained choristers of Winchester, choirmonks and choirboys together, burst into the anthem of Zadok the Priest, Unxerunt Salomonem Zadok sacerdos, as the bishops prepared for the solemn moment of blessing with the holy oil, after which Alfred would be literally the Lord's Anointed, against whom rebellion was also sacrilege.Shortly, thought Shef, would come the difficult moment for him. It had been explained to him very carefully that Wessex, ever since Queen Eadburh of wicked memory, never had a Queen, and that the King's wife could have no separate coronation. Nevertheless, Alfred had said, he was insistent that his new wife should be accepted by him in front of the people, in honor of her courage in the defeat of the Franks. So, he had said, after the donning of the regalia, sword, ring and scepter, he meant his wife to come forward and be named beforethe congregation, not as Queen, but as the Lady of Wessex. And who better to lead her to the altar than her brother, Shef, also his co-king?Who might have to yield his kingdom to the child of Alfred and the Lady, if he had no child himself.This would be the second time he had given her away, Shef thought bitterly. Once again he must forget the love, the passion that had once bound them. The first had been to a man they both hated, and in punishment for that, it seemed, he must now hand her over to a man they both loved. As Thorvin nudged him with a mighty elbow, to tell him the time had come to step forward and lead the Lady Godive with her train of maidens to the altar, Shef met her eyes--her triumphant eyes--and felt his heart turn to ice.Alfred might now be a king, he though numbly. He himself was not. He did not have the right, or the strength.As the choir broke into the Benedicat he decided that he would do it. Do the thing he wanted to, not just what he felt was his duty. He would take out the fleet, the new navy of the co-kings, to work out his inner anger on the enemies of the realm: the pirates of the North, the fleets of the Franks, the slavers of Ireland or Spain, anyone. Let Alfred and Godive find their own happiness at home. He would find peace in drowned men and shattered ships.
Earlier this same day, far to the north in the land of the Danes, a simpler and more terrifying ceremony had taken place.It had begun before dawn. The bound man lifted from where he lay on the floor of the guard-hut had long since ceased to struggle, though he was neither a coward nor a weakling. Two days before, when the emissaries of the Snake-eye had marched into the slave-pen, he had known what would be in store for the man they chose. When they picked him from the others, he had known also that the least chance of escape was to be seized, and he had seized it: secretly gathered the slack in his wrist-chains as they marched him off, waited till the guards were hustling him over the wooden bridge that led to the inner heart of the Braethraborg, the stronghold of the three last sons of Ragnar. Then struck suddenly to his right with the chain, and hurled himself for the rail and the swift river beneath it--at the best to swim for freedom, at the worst to die his own man.His guards had seen many such desperate attempts. One snatched at his ankle as he lunged for the rail, two others had him pinned before he could recover. They had beaten him systematically with their spear-shafts, not in malice, but to ensure he would be too stiff andbattered to move swiftly again. Then taken off the chains and replaced them with rawhide thongs, twisting and wetting them with sea-water to dry even tighter. If the bound man could have seen his fingers in the dark, they would have been blue-black, swollen like a corpse's. Even if some god intervened to save his life, it would be too late now to save his hands.But neither god nor man would intervene. The guards had ceased to acknowledge his existence when they talked among themselves. He was not dead, because for what he had to do a man was needed with the breath, and especially the blood, still in him. But that was all. There was no need for anything else.Now, at the end of the long night, his guards carried him out of the longhouse where the great fresh-tarred flagship lay, and down the long row of rollers that led down the slipway to the sea."Here will do. This one here," grunted the burly middle-aged warrior in charge."How do we do it?" asked one of the others, a young man without the campaign-marks, the scars and silver arm-rings of the others. "I've never seen this done before.""So watch and you'll learn. First, cut that rawhide round his wrists. No, don't worry," as the younger man hesitated, looked round automatically for any slightest glimpse of an escape, "he's a goner, look at him, couldn't even crawl if we let him go. Don't let him go, mind. Just cut his wrists free, right."A few minutes of sawing, and the bound man staggered as the lashings freed, stared a moment in the pale but growing light at the hands in front of him."Now lay him out flat on that roller. Belly down. Feet together. Now see here, young Hrani, because this is the important bit. The thrall has to have his back upwards, for why you'll see very shortly. He can't have his hands behind him, same reason, and he mustn't be able to move. But he mustn't be able to stop himself moving either."So what I do is this." The middle-aged leader pressed his captive's face down on to the solid pine trunk he lay on, seized both arms and dragged them forward above his head, till the victim looked like a man diving. He pulled a hammer and two short iron spikes from his belt."We used to tie them, but I think you get a better roll like this. I saw something like it once in one of the Christers' churches. Course, they put the nail in the wrong place. Half-wits."Grunting with effort, the veteran began to hammer a spike carefully through the junction of wrist and hand. Behind him, there came arustle of many men moving. Against the dawn-light of the east, dark shapes began to show. Spears and helmets silhouetted against the sky where the sun would soon show its first glimmer on this, the first day of the warriors' new year, when day and night were the same length."He's taking it well," said the young man as his instructor started to hammer in the second spike. "More like a warrior than a thrall. Who was he, anyway?""Him? Just some fisherman we picked up on the way back last year. And he's not taking it well, he can't feel a thing, his hands have been dead for hours."Soon over now," he added to the man now firmly nailed to the log, patting his cheek. "Speak well of me in the next world. This could go a lot worse if I bungled it. But I haven't. Just lash his legs down, you two, no need for another spike. Feet together. He's got to turn when the moment comes."The little group got to their feet,...
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