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.
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.
About the Author
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.
HARRY HARRISON was the Hugo Award-nominated, Nebula Award-winning and New York Times bestselling author of the Stainless Steel Rat, Deathworld, and West of Eden series, as well as Make Room! Make Room!which was turned into the cult classic movie, Soylent Green starring Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson. In 2009 Harrison was awarded the Damon Knight SF Grand Master Award by the Science Fiction Writers of America. He died in 2012.
Read an Excerpt
King and Emperor
High 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, wonderingtill their better-informed neighbors hissed the truth in their earswhich 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 wifeif 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 Völundwhat 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 mightsaving at all times his orthodoxy and the rights of the Patriarchconsider 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 emperors and churches on their word alone. Finally there had been no help for it but to arrange a meeting of the supreme powers, the four greatest authorities in Christendom:the Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople, the Emperor of the Romans and the Emperor of the Greeks.
The meeting had been held up for months by the discovery that in his eyes the Basileus of the Greeks considered himself the true heir of the Caesars and so Emperor of the Romans as well, while the Pope bitterly resented the termination 'of Rome' being added to his title, regarding himself as the heir of St. Peter and the Pope of all Christians everywhere. Carefully formulas had been arranged, agreements reached not only as to what might be said but what might not under any circumstances be said. Like mating hedgehogs the powers drew together: delicately, gingerly.
Even the place of meeting had required a dozen proposals and counter-proposals. Yet now, at last, the negotiators might look out over a bluer sea than any the barbarian kings of the North would ever view: the Adriatic, looking west towards Italy, at the place where once the mightiest of Roman administrator-emperors had built his palace for retirementSalonae of Diocletian, called already by the Slavs filtering into the region, Split.
In the end, and after days of exhausting ceremonial, the two military leaders had lost patience and dismissed all their retinues of advisers and translators and chiefs of protocol. They sat now on a balcony overlooking the sea, a pitcher of resined wine between them. All serious issues were settled, the agreements at this moment being embodied by relays of scribes writing a massive treaty in multiple copies in gold and purple ink. The only possible check now could come from the religious leaders, who had retired to talk between themselves. And each had been given the strictest and grimmest of warnings by his earthly colleague and paymaster, to cause no trouble. For there were worse things that could happen to the Church, as the Imperator Bruno had said to his creature Pope John, than a misunderstanding over the exact nature of the Nicene Creed.
The emperors sat quietly, then, each with an ear cocked for the return of the Churchmen, discussing their personal problems, as one ultimate ruler to another. It was perhaps the first time either had talked freely and frankly of such matters. They spoke in Latin, native to neither of them, but at least allowing them to communicate without intermediaries.
"We are alike in several ways, then," mused the Emperor of the Greeks, the Basileus. The imperial name he had chosen, Basil I, showed a certain lack of imagination unsurprising in one with his history.
"Hoc ille," agreed the Imperator of the West, Bruno Emperor of the Romans as he claimed, but in reality of the Franks, the Italians and most of all of the Germans. "That's it. We are new men. Of course my family is old and distinguished. But I am not of the blood of Charlemagne."
"Nor I of the house of Leo," agreed the Basileus. "Tell me if I am wrong, but as I understand it there is none of the blood of Charlemagne left."
Bruno nodded. "None in the male line. Some were killed by their own vassals, like King Charles the Bald, on account of their failures in battle. I had to take measures against others myself."
"How many?" probed Basil.
"About ten. It was made easier for me in that they all seemed to have the same names. Lewis the Stammerer, Lewis the German. Three sons for each of them, and still with the same names, Charles and Lewis and Carloman. And some others of course. But it is not quite true that there is none of the blood of Charlemagne left. He has great-great-granddaughters left. One day, when all my tasks are done, I may ally myself with one."
"So your position will be stronger."
A yet fiercer look crossed Bruno's craggy, rock-hewn face. He straightened up in his chair, reached behind him for the thing that never left him, that no negotiators could persuade him to abandon. The lance with the leaf-shaped blade, its plain head now shining once more with inlaid gold crosses, set on a shaft of ash-wood barely visible beneath gold and silver wire. His ape-like shoulders stretched as he swung it before him, thumped its shaft on the marble floor.
"No! My position could not be stronger in any way. For I am the holder of the Holy Lance, the lance with which the German centurion Longinus split the heart of our blessed Savior. He who holds it, he is the heir of Charlemagne, by more than blood. I took it in battle with the heathen, brought it back to Christendom."
Reverently Bruno kissed the blade, laid the weapon down with tender care beside him. The bodyguards who had stiffened into readiness yards distant relaxed, smiled warily at each other.
The Basileus nodded, reflecting. He had learnt two things. That this strange count from the furthest extremity of the Franks believed his own fable. And that the stories they told of him were true. This man did not need a bodyguard, he was his own. How like the Franks to elect as their king the one the most formidable in single combat, not a strategos but a mere champion. And yet he might be a strategist too.
"And you," probed Bruno in his turn. "You ... put from his throne your predecessor, Michael the Drunkard, as he was called. I take it he has left no seed behind to grow rebellion."
"None," replied Basil curtly, his pale face flushing over the dark beard.
Basil's supposed second son, Leo, is in reality the child of Michael, Bruno's spies had reported. Basil killed the Emperor his master for cuckolding him. But in any case the Greeks needed an Emperor who could stay sober long enough to marshal an army. They are pressed by the Slavs, the Bulgars, even by your own foes, the Vikings raiding down the great rivers of the east. Not twenty years ago a Viking fleet menaced Constantinople, which they call Byzantium. We do not know why Basil allowed Leo to live.
"So. We are new men, then. But neither of us has old men waiting to challenge us. And yet both of us know we have many challenges, many threats. We and Christendom at once. Tell me," Bruno asked, his face intent, "where do you see the greatest threat to us, to Christ, and to his Church. You yourself, I mean, not your generals and your advisers."
"An easy question, for me," Basil replied, "though I may not give the answer you expect. You know that your adversaries, the heathen of the North, the Vikings as you call them: you know that a generation ago they brought their ships up to Byzantium itself?"
Bruno nodded. "It surprised me when I learned it. I did not think that they could find their way across the Italian Sea. But then your secretary told me that they had not done so, had somehow brought their ships down the rivers of the East. You think they are your greatest danger? That is what I hoped ..."
A lifted hand interrupted him. "No. I do not think that these men, fierce as they are, are the greatest menace. We bought them off, you know. The common folk say that it was the Virgin Mary who routed them, but no, I remember the negotiations. We paid them a little gold. We offered them unlimited use of the great municipal baths! They took it. To me they are fierce and greedy children. Not serious.
"No, the true danger comes not from them, mere pagani that they are, immature rustics. It comes from the followers of Muhammad." The Basileus paused for wine.
"I have never met one," Bruno prompted.
"They came from nowhere. Two hundred and fifty years ago these followers of their false Prophet came from out of the desert. Destroyed the Persian Empire. Took from us all our African provinces, and Jerusalem." The Basileus leaned forward. "Took the southern shore of the Italian Sea. Since then that sea has been our battleground. And on it we have been losing. You know why?"
Bruno shook his head.
"Galleys need water, all the time. Oarsmen drink faster than the fish. The side that controls the watering-grounds controls the sea. And that means the islands. Kypros they took, island of Venus. Then Crete. After they conquered Spain, they seized the Balearics. Now their fleets press again on Sicily. If they take thatwhere will Rome be? So you see, friend, they threaten you as well. How long since their armies were at the gates of your holy city?"
Opening doors, raised voices, a shuffle of feet, said that the conference of Pope and Patriarch had broken up, that the Emperors of East and West must turn their minds again to ceremonial and treaties. Bruno groped for a reply, amid several. The Basileus is an Easterner, he thought, like Pope Nicholas whom we killed. He does not realize that destiny lies in the West. He doesnot know that the Way-folk are not the greedy children bought off in his father's time. That they are worse than the followers of the Prophet, for they still have their prophet with them: the one-eye. I should have killed him when I had my sword at his throat.
And yet maybe there is no need to argue here. The Basileus needs my bases. I need his fleet. Not for the Arabs. Just to sweep the Channel so I can put my lancers across. But let him have his way first. For he has the one thing that the Way-folk do not ...
The Emperors were on their feet, the churchmen approaching, all smiles. A cardinal spoke, bowing, the cardinal who had once been Archbishop Gunther of Cologne. He spoke in fluent Low German, his and Bruno's native dialect, which neither Pope nor Patriarch nor any Greek or Italian would follow. At the same time one of the Patriarch's staff broke out with a burst of demotic Greek, no doubt with the same intention.
"It's fixed. They have agreed that we may add the formula 'and the Son' to the Nicene Creedmuch difference that makesas long as we draw no conclusions about the Double Procession of the Holy Ghost from it. Our fool, the Italian, has been told he has to withdraw his bishops from the Bulgars and let Saint Cyril have a free hand teaching them to read and write. All sides have agreed in condemning the former Patriarch, Photius the bookworm, no problem there. It's fixed."
Bruno turned towards Basil as the latter heard his own secret briefing chatter to an end. The two men smiled, simultaneously, reached out their hands.
"My bases in Italy," said Bruno.
"My fleet to relieve Sicily. And then the whole Italian Sea," replied Basil.
And then the Atlantic, thought Bruno. But he held his tongue. After all he might have shed the Greeks and their Emperor before then. If he or his agents could find out the weapon that held Constantinople inviolable from the sea. The secret no Westerner knew, Roman or German or Way-man.
The secret of Greek fire.
Copyright ©1996 by Harry Harrison and John Holm
Table of Contents