King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 14, 15

The cave led on and on, with every now and then the black line of some branching passage showing momentarily in the light. Shef began to feel more anxiety than he had done so far. If he were abandoned now, in the dark, the chances were he would never find his way out. Retracing his steps in the dark might seem easy, but he would be feeling his way. Easy, indeed unavoidable, to take a wrong turning. Then he would wander in the blackness till thirst took him. His lips dried at the thought, remembering what thirst had felt like only that morning. Better than the sword would have been a water-skin and tinder-box.

Thierry had paused to let him catch up. In the candlelight Shef saw something else on the walls, signed to Thierry to move the light closer.

Paintings. All over the one flat wall on the left of the passage, paintings of animals, done with perfect fidelity, not like the half-abstract dragon- and beast-shapes of the North. A bull, Shef could see. The sheep of the mountains, just like the ones wandering outside. And there, on its hind legs, what seemed to be a massive bear, a black bear as big as the white ones of the Arctic. A spear jutted from its chest, and round it pranced tiny stick-like man-figures.

“Pintura,” said Thierry in an echoing rumble. “Pintura de los vechios. Nostros padres.” His voice contained in it a note of pride. He walked on. Stopped, at the end of the gallery, at what seemed to be a blank unbroken wall. He pointed at himself, shook his finger negatively. Pointed at Shef, made pushing gestures. “I stop. You go on.”

Shef looked at the blank wall carefully. At its base there was again a black crack, an opening. It did not seem deep enough for a man. But that must be the way through. A crawl, not a walk. As he realized what was meant Thierry began suddenly to walk away, took five paces with Shef beginning to reach out after him, then blew out the candle and vanished.

Instantly Shef stopped dead. If he ran after Thierry in the dark he would lose his bearings, perhaps never come back to the wall and the gap. Yet there must be a way through there. That was safety, or at least the way through to the test. And if there was a test, there was a way to pass it. Better do that than struggle in the dark.

Slowly Shef turned, careful to retrace his movements exactly as he remembered them, groped his way back to the wall, felt till he could touch the edges of the crack. Very faintly he could feel air blowing through. So there was something on the other side. Dropping on to his belly he began to squeeze forward under the lip of rock.

Halfway through, his groping hands met hard rock. He felt to either side. Rock as well, and no opening below. The edge of the rock lip under which he had crawled ground painfully into the small of his back. He did not think he could push himself back now, his ribs would catch. If he did not find a way through he would lie here under the mountain till he moldered away.

But he had been in this situation before. The makers of the old king’s barrow from which he had rescued treasure and scepter, they had used the same trick. Maybe all treasure guardians used it. He was in a bend like the shape of the U-rune, and there would be a passageway above his head. Sure enough, the groping hand he could thrust a few inches above him met no resistance. Yet he could not crawl through the way he had begun, or his back would break. He should have gone through on his back, not his belly.

The sweat of fear had begin to break out on him, fear at the thought of lying here trapped for eternity. That was an advantage. And underneath him was not rock but sand or shale. Methodically, Shef began to scrape what he could from underneath his belly, making a little hollow in which to turn. He drew in his breath to reduce his mid-section every inch it would go, rolled, tried to force himself over. Stone dug into his sides, his leather belt seemed to catch on some projection. He twisted with panic force, felt the belt tear and give, felt himself roll over.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry