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Driven by prophetic dreams, the Viking warrior Shef as become the One King, the undisputed ruler of the North. Now he must face the reborn power of the Holy Roman Empire.
Rome threatens Shef's fearsome Viking navy with a new invention of unparalleled destruction: Greek fire. Unable to defend his fleet against this awesome weapon, Shef travels East in search of new wisdom. His quest leads him to the lavish court of the Muslim Caliph and, ultimately, to the secret hiding place of the Holy Grail.
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Harry Harrison is the author of Deathworld, Make Room! Make Room! (filmed as Soylent Green), the popular Stainless Steel Rat books, and many other famous works of SF.
King and Emperor
CHAPTER ONEHigh in the sky, small white clouds scudded before the strong wind from the south-west. Their shadows raced across the bright green of new grass, across the strong rich brown of plow-furrows, the heavy horse teams drawing slow lines across the springtime fields. In between the sun shone, hot and welcome on England emerging from its winter sleep. Emerging too, many said, from the long dark into a new day and a new spring under its young ruler and his iconoclastic but fortunate rule.In the market place of rustic Stamford maybe as many as two thousand people were gathered to witness the strange experiment that had been promised. The thanes and churls crowded in from the fields, wives and children with them, pushing back their hoods to take the sun, even shedding their cloaks with due caution against the return of the spring showers. The slow heavy faces showed pleasure, wonder, even excitement. For today someone would indeed show a new kind of courage that not even Ivar the Boneless or his brother Sigurth the Snake-eye might have matched. Today a man would leap from the great stone tower of the House of Wisdom itself. And fly!Or so it was said. The crowd would be happy to see flight, to tell their children and grandchildren about it ever after. But they would be happy also to see dramatic fall. They munched bread and good blood-sausage in even-tempered expectation of either.A blare of horns set the spectators moving slowly to either side of the square, as towards them from the king's great hall came the king himself and his guests and officers. At the head, walking with deliberate ceremonial just behind the troop of champions blasting challenge from their enormous,long-preserved aurochs horns, came the two kings themselves, Shef and his guest and partner Saxon Alfred. Those who had not seen them before stared uncertainly at the contrasting figures, wondering--till their better-informed neighbors hissed the truth in their ears--which was the mighty one, which the tolerated partner. Indeed it was Alfred who caught the eye, dressed like a king in scarlet cloak, sky-blue tunic, gold circlet on yellow hair, left hand resting easily on the gold hilt of an ancient sword.The man beside him wore scarlet also, a cloak of wool woven so fine it seemed as soft as its magnificent silk lining. But the tunic and breeches beneath it were plain dark gray. The king carried no sword, indeed no weapon at all, stalking along with his thumbs in his belt like a churl coming home from the plow. And yet, if one looked closer, it seemed possible that this was after all the man the Norse-folk called Ivarsbani, Sigurtharbani, the man who had killed both Ivar the Boneless and Sigurth the Snake-eye with his own hands, and King Kjallak the Strong of the Swedes as well. Had overthrown too the power of Charles the Bald and his Frankish horsemen at Hastings, in the year of Our Lord 866.The king was now in his late twenties, and he had the body of a swordsmith in his prime: broad shoulders, powerful hands, a stride that swung from the hips, a waist so narrow he might have traded belts with his wife--if he had had one. Yet his face was that of a man much older. The black hair was streaked, and more than streaked with gray over the temples. More gray showed in the short clipped beard. The king's right eye was covered with a plain black patch, but round it men could see the flesh drawn in, wasted, the one cheek hollow. Lines of care ran across his brow, an expression of constant pain. Or was it regret? Men said that he had returned from his duel with the last of the Ragnarssons friendless and alone, having bought his life and his victory with the loss of others. Some said he had left his luck behind on the battlefield with his dead friends. Others, better-informed, said that his luck was so great that he drained it from others, brought death to those who came too close.Whatever the truth, the king felt no need to display wealth or rank or power. He wore no crown, no fine jewelry, gave no employment to cunning goldsmiths. Round his arms, though, there ran half a score of golden bracelets, plain and unworked: worn without show, as if they were merely money.Behind the two kings came their retinues, chamberlains, bodyguards, Shef's swordbearer, Viking sub-kings and English aldermen of shires anxious to be near the center of power. Close on Shef's heels strode one man who brought murmurs of wonder to the rustics in from the fields, a man nearer seven foot than six, and one who would never see twenty stone again, nor twenty-five, a man head and shoulders above all but the mightiest even of the picked bodyguards: Brand the Viking, Champion now of all ofNorway and not only of his native Halogaland, rumored in whispers even in the depths of England to be the relative of trolls and a kinsman of marbendills of the deep. Few knew the truth of what had happened when the king had been hunted into the farthest north, and few dared to enquire."But where is the man who is to fly?" whispered one anxious rustic to his town-dwelling cousin. "The man dressed like a bird?""Already in the Wisdom House with the priests," came the reply. "He feared his feather-hame, his coat of birds' feathers, might be crushed in the press. Follow the kings now, and we shall see."Slowly the crowd closed in behind the royal procession, and trailed them down the hard stone of the Great North Road itself. Not to the town walls, for in demonstration of power Stamford had none: its defenses lay far out at sea, in the catapult-mounting battleships that had crushed Vikings and Franks alike. But to the edge of the wooden huts of the common folk, where beyond them in a meadow stood the great square of dormitories, workshops, forges, stables and storerooms that was the College of the Way in England, with lifting over it the tall sails of windmills. And at its center the stone tower Shef had ordered to outstrip the works of the Christian kings: sixty feet high and forty square, its blocks of stone so massive that visiting churls could not believe they had been raised by men with cranes and counterweights, but told strange tales of devils compelled by magic.The kings and dignitaries entered the high iron-bound doorway. The common crowd spread itself round in an expectant semi-circle, gaping up.As he reached the top of the staircase, Shef stepped ahead of his co-king for the first time and walked out onto the flat roof, surrounded by battlements. Thorvin was there to meet him, dressed as always in the plain but shining white of a priest of the Way, silver hammer round his neck as a sign of his devotion to Thor, a real double-headed hammer tucked into his belt as a reminder of his craft. Behind him, but surrounded by other priests, was the man who was to fly.Shef walked thoughtfully towards him. The man was dressed in a woolen suit of the plainest homespun, but not the usual tunic and breeches. Instead what he wore seemed to have been cut and sewn as one piece, to fit as tightly as possible. But round him and disguising his body-suit was a cape. Shef looked closer, still unspeaking. Thousands upon thousands of feathers, not stuck into some other material, wool or linen, but sewn tightly, quill to quill. The cape was strapped with sinews to wrists and ankles, stitched also along the line of the shoulders and down the back. It hung loose, though, round the man's sides.Suddenly the man, meeting the king's eye, threw his arms wide and straddled his legs. The cape took shape, like a web, like a sail. Shef nodded, recognizing what was intended."Where do you come from?"The bird-man nodded respectfully towards Alfred, standing a pace behind Shef. "From the land of Alfred King, my lord. From Wiltshire."Shef forbore to ask why he had come to the land of another king. Only one king paid silver for new knowledge, and at a rate that drew experimenters from all across the Northern lands."What gave you the idea?"The bird-man drew himself up, as if ready with a prepared speech. "I was born and baptized a Christian, lord, but years ago I heard the teachings of the Way. And I heard the story of the greatest of smiths, of Völund the Wise, whom we English call Wayland Smith. It came to me that if he could rise and fly from his enemies, then so might I. Since then I have spared no effort in making this garment, the last of many I have tried. For it says in the 'Lay of Völund,' 'Laughing, he rose aloft, flew with feather-hame.' And I believe the words of the gods are true, truer than the Christians' stories. See, I have made myself a sign in token of my devotion."Moving carefully, the man pulled forward a silver pair of wings, hanging from a chain round his neck.In response Shef pulled from under his tunic the sign he himself bore, the kraki, the pole-ladder of his own patron and perhaps-father, the little-known god Rig."None have worn the wings of Völund before," Shef remarked to Thorvin."Few wore the ladder of Rig either."Shef nodded. "Success changes many things. But tell me, devotee of Völund--what makes you think you can fly with this cape, besides the words of the lay."The bird-man looked surprised. "Is it not obvious, lord? Birds fly. They have feathers. If men had feathers, they would fly.""Why has it not been done before?""Other men have not my faith."Shef nodded once more, leapt suddenly up to the top of the battlements, stood on the narrow stone lip. His bodyguards moved forward urgently, were met by the bulk of Brand. "Easy, easy," he growled. "The king is not a Halogalander, but he is something of a seaman now. He will not fall off a flat ledge in broad daylight."Shef looked down, saw two thousand faces staring up. "Back," he shouted, waving his arms. "Back from under. Give the man room.""Do you think I will fall, lord?" asked the bird-man. "Do you mean to test my faith?"Shef's one eye looked past him, saw in the crowd behind Alfred the face of the one woman who had accompanied them to the top of the stair: Godive, Alfred's wife, now known to all as the Lady of Wessex. His ownchildhood sweetheart and first love, who had left him for a kinder man. One who did not look at others to use them. Her face reproached him.He dropped his gaze, gripped the man by the arm, careful not to disturb or disarrange his feathers."No," he said. "Not at all. If they are too close to the tower they will not see well. I wish them to have something to tell their children and their children's children. Not just, 'he flew too fast for me to see.' I wish you the best of fortune."The bird-man smiled proudly, stepped first onto a block, then, carefully, onto the wall where Shef had stood. A gasp of amazement came up from the crowd below. He stood, spread his cape widely in the strong wind. It blew from behind him, Shef noted, flattening the feathers against his back. He thinks the cape is a sail, then, which will sweep him on as if he were a ship. But what if it should instead be a ... ?The man crouched, gathering his strength, and then suddenly leapt straight out, crying at the top of his voice, "Völund aid me!"His arms beat the air, the cape flapping wildly. Once, and then as Shef craned forward, again, and then ... A thud came up from the stone-flagged courtyard below, a long simultaneous groan from the crowd. Looking down, Shef saw the body lying perhaps sixteen feet from the base of the tower. Priests of the Way were already running towards him, priests of Ithun the Healer. Shef recognised among them the diminutive shape of another childhood friend, Hund the one-time slave, who shared a dog's name with himself, but was now thought the greatest leech and bone-setter of the island of Britain. Thorvin must have stationed them there. So he had shared his own misgivings.They were looking up now, shouting. "He has broken both legs, badly smashed. But not his back."Godive was looking over the wall now, next to her husband. "He was a brave man," she said, a note of accusation in her voice."He will get the best treatment we can give him," Shef replied."How much would you have given him if he had flown, say, a furlong?" asked Alfred."For a furlong? A hundred pounds of silver.""Will you give him some now, as compensation for his injuries?"Shef's lips tightened suddenly into a hard line, as he felt the pressure put on him, the pressure to show charity, respect good intentions. He knew Godive had left him for his ruthlessness. He did not see himself as ruthless. He did only what he needed to. He had many unknown subjects to protect as well as those who appeared before him."He was a brave man," he said, turning away. "But he was a fool as well. All he had to go on was words. But in the College of the Way it is worksalone that count. Is that not so, Thorvin? He has taken your book of holy song and turned it into a Bible like the Christians' gospel. To be believed in, not thought about. No. I will send my leeches to him, but I will pay him nothing."A voice drifted up from the courtyard again. "He has his wits back. He says his mistake was to use hen's feathers, and they are earth-scratchers. Next time he will try with gull-feathers alone.""Don't forget," Shef said more loudly and to all, still answering an unspoken accusation. "I spend my subjects' silver for a purpose. All this could be snatched from us any summer. Think how many enemies we have over there." He pointed at right angles to the wind, out across the meadows to the south and east.
If some bird or bird-man could have followed the wave of the king across sea and land for a thousand miles, across the English Channel and then across the whole continent of Europe, it would have come in the end upon a meeting: a meeting long-prepared. For many weary months go-betweens had ridden down muddy roads and sailed stormy seas, to ask careful questions, in the languages of Byzantium and of Rome."If it might be that the Imperator, in his wisdom, might be prepared to consider thus and so; and might attempt to use such slight influence as he has with His Holiness the Pope to persuade him in his turn to reconsider such and such a formula; then (accepting the foregoing as a working possibility or if I may use your so-flexible tongue, a hypothesis) could it be so that in his turn the Basileus might turn his mind to the thoughts of so and thus?" So spoke the Romans."Esteemed colleague, leaving your interesting hypothesis to one side for the moment only, if it were so that the Basileus might--saving at all times his orthodoxy and the rights of the Patriarch--consider a working and perhaps temporary arrangement in such and such a field of interest, might we then enquire what the attitude of the Imperator would be to the vexed question of the Bulgarian embassy, and the unhappy attempts of previous administrations to detach our newly-baptized converts from their faith and attach them to the allegiance of Rome?" So replied the Greeks.Slowly the emissaries had conversed, fenced, felt each other out, returned for further instructions. The emissaries had risen higher and higher in rank, from mere bishops and second secretaries to archbishops and influential abbots, drawing in military men, counts and strategists. Plenipotentiaries had been dispatched, only to discover that however full their powers might be, they did not dare to commit their...
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Book Description Tor Fantasy, 1997. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M0812536460
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