‘The Elder King,’ Snippet 2

“I was always told that the Centurion was a Roman named Longinus,” I said.

            “You were told wrong. The centurion was a Norseman named Vidfarna. Maybe they called him Longinus in the army. I know not. And the proof of my story –ˮ he paused for a lick – “is the Nail.”

            “The nail…” I said.


            “A nail from the crucifixion?” I gaped.

            “None other.”

            I stood up from the bench. “This has gone far enough,” I said. “I know I’m a mere foreigner, an Irishman among the Norse and a butt for jokes, but I wasn’t born after breakfast today. I’ll give you this, though – you tell a good tale.” I’d been looking for the chance to take a walk anyway – I needed to drain off my bladder.

            Baard stood with me and tugged the sleeve of my robe, getting grease on it. “I’ve had priests tell me the same thing before. But I can show you.”

            “You have it with you?”

            “It’s over in the church.”

            I looked at him. “You’re serious,” I said.

            “Before God I am.”

            “Well, I need to piss. After that, I shall see this relic you claim to possess.”

            We passed out through the great hall of Augvaldness. It was of a size with Erling’s own back at Sola, as befit a house where kings like Haakon the Good and Olaf Trygvesson had once dwelt, back when Norway had a king of its own. The long-fires along the floor and the fish oil lamps hanging from the carven pillars shed a warm yellow glow among the many shadows where a great company of well-fed men in bright clothing drank and feasted. Above, the peat smoke of the fires made the rafters hazy, up where a goodly number of hams hung, smoking. Around the walls were tapestries venerable and faded with age, along with weapons and shields nabbed from foes long dead. Erling had claimed Augvaldsness as his own, and no man had standing to gainsay him on the point. He kept Baard in office as steward, because he liked him, and feasts such as this, now and then, made up part of the taxes he was owed.

            We went out through the entry room into the cool night, the Norwegian light night with the sun low but still up. And yet we were blind, thanks to heavy fog. Baard carried an oil lamp on three thin chains. I used the privy in the standing-up manner, and then Baard led me to the church. It was built of wood, with a steep roof from which projected a smaller roof above, like a house atop a house. He pushed open the heavy timber door. I blessed myself with holy water from the font.

            The oil lamp cast crooked shadows over the walls of the church. Baard led me forward to the altar. He picked up a silver box that rested there. I’d never noticed it before, though I’d celebrated mass here more than once. The monstrance on the altar contained a relic of St. Clement, and I’d never noticed another relic there.

            “I’ll hold the light. You open the box,” Baard said.

            I took the thing. It was about the length of my hand, covered over in beaten silver plates. The lid was the sliding kind. Corrosion had made the grooves sticky, but I got it open at last.

            Inside, nestled in a cushion of faded red silk, was a rusted sliver of iron, about the size of my longest finger.

            “It looks like it could be a nail,” I said. “Has any bishop pronounced on it?”

            “Bishop Sigurd said it was a true relic,” said Baard. “He could hardly help it, after touching it.”

            “How so?”

            “Touch it and see.”

            I didn’t much like the sound of that, but I would not be thought a coward. I put out a cautious finger to touch the sliver.

            Have you ever been terrified? Or have you ever been in a fight, terrified or not? Remember how the whole world narrowed to a small space, like looking through a hollow log? That was how the world seemed to me at that moment, only the log was very long, and what I saw seemed very far away. Yet all was clear, clean-edged and bright.

            I saw a man sitting on a throne, with a golden crown on his head. His hair and beard were a reddish brown. His eyes were a bright blue, his cheeks ruddy.

            In his right hand he held a great Dane war axe. In the other, a king’s orb with a gold cross at the top.

            Under one of his feet I saw a small, living dragon, about the size of a newborn lamb. The king was treading it down so that it might not move, but it thrashed and bit at his  leg. It bit with men’s teeth, for its head was the head of a man. That head looked very much like the king’s own.

            The king looked at me and spoke.

            “I come,” he said to me. “Behold, I come quickly. I come to break the world — to break old laws, and old ways, and old friendships and brotherhoods.

            “Truth itself will seem a lie, and no man will know what is right. Not even I.

            “I bring death and life, ancient ways and ways that are to come. I bring a maelstrom, and the world upended. I bring to you a parting of ways, both forks leading to evil. I do not fear evil, for I am a man reborn, a man whose day of death is settled, and so am untouched by the fears of lesser men. I will put you to the test, Ailill of Ireland. Prepare your soul. Cleanse your heart of earthly desires. For glory or infamy are set in your way.”

            Then the little world I beheld drew down to a tiny point, and winked out like a star. I woke to find myself reeling and lightheaded.

            “Satisfied?” asked Baard.

            I sat down, irreverently, against the altar. “I thought wonders had ceased in my life,” I said. “It’s been years since I saw a wonder, and to speak truth I was well content with that.”

            “What did you see?”

            “I saw a man. A king. He spoke prophecy. None of it was good. Nor was it bad. He told me I would face a test, but gave me no clue what sort of test it might be.”

            “It’s the way of visions,” said Baard. “As keeper of the relic, I’ve watched many men have them here. I’ve seen some visions of my own. And I’ve come away none the wiser. I think visions are no good for helping us make choices, but only for rubbing our faces in our foolishness, after we’ve gone amiss and the evil foretold has come to pass.”

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