King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 14, 15

“They are poor people,” whispered Svandis, “and wood is scarce up here. You are destroying their door.”

“I thought you said they were savages and devil-worshipers? Well, whatever they are, I know this. Time for them to worry about us. Not just us worry about them.”

Shef turned from the demonstration as Styrr walked back to Cwicca with a score of bolts in his enormous Brand-like hand. He patted Svandis gently, still less than decent in her rags. “I am going to sleep now. Come lie next to me.”

The sun was no more than a hand’s breadth from the horizon when the guide came for him: a burly man in the sweaty woolens of a mountain shepherd. Svandis snarled at him as he came towards the northerners. “That is the one Thierry,” she muttered.

He looked down at Shef, sprawled on the grass, and said without expression, “Viens.”

Shef rose, reached for his sword-belt standing propped against the barn wall. For this trip he had armed himself with one of the issue weapons of the Fafnisbane, a plain brass-hilted broadsword. The guide shook a finger from side to side. “Non.” The rest of what he said made no sense to Shef, but the tone was unmistakable. Shef put the weapon back, straightened himself, made ready to follow. As the two men walked off, Shef heard a hail from Cwicca. The guide turned, alerted by the menace in the tone. Cwicca stared at him, pointed deliberately first at Shef, then with a sweeping gesture at the village around. He pointed again at Shef, jabbing a finger imperatively. Then swept his arm at the village, and drew the edge of his hand across his throat. “Bring him back,” it meant. “Or else…”

The guide did not respond, but turned again and led Shef at a fast walk away across the little patch of land and immediately up a stony trail into the mountains. Shef followed, his legs stiff from the morning’s climb, but working off their pain as he strode out to keep up.

The path, if it could be called a path, led them from stony outcrop to stony outcrop, climbing slightly, but mostly going across the side of the mountain, over patches of boulder, shifting scree, and again and again, round the head of craggy ravines. From time to time the mountain sheep, browsing everywhere as if they were goats, raised a head or bounded away at their passage. It reminded Shef of the path he had taken to the house of Echegorgun, years before. Only here the sun warmed the stone instead of merely casting a pale light on it, and the air was full of the scent of mountain thyme. The sun sank further, touched the horizon and crawled beneath it. Still there was light in the sky, but fading. If he were left alone on the slope, Shef decided, he would make no attempt to return. Find a flat stretch and wait for day. As he walked he began to mark possible resting-places near the path. Not a place for explorations in the dark.

His eye left Thierry the guide as he hurried on five or ten paces ahead. The path kinked abruptly left, round the side of yet another stony mass jutting out of the side of the mountain. Shef stepped round it. Found himself alone, on the edge of a steep fall down to dry rocks below. He halted, stood stiff and alert. Where had the man gone to? Was this a trap?

Too complex to be a trap. If Thierry had wanted to push him over an edge he had had a dozen chances already. And Thierry knew he had left hostages behind. Shef looked round carefully. A crack in the stone, a black line in the fading light. Of course, a cave-mouth. And Thierry standing just inside it, watching him. Shef walked over to him, gestured to him to lead on.

Inside the cave-mouth, a mere split in the rock barely three feet wide, someone had left a candle. Thierry struck sparks from flint, lit it, walked on, now moving more slowly. Shef followed the little patch of light. As he walked on he began to feel, through the worn leather soles of his shoes, that he was treading on loose rock. Loose rock with sharp edges. He bent, picked one up, studied it in the faint light of the candle a few feet ahead. It was flint, sure enough. Shaped flint, stone chipped and flaked to produce a kind of point, like a spear-point. Echegorgun had done the same. Only his points and implements were four times the size, made for the race of trolls. Shef threw it down, walked on.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry