After a few seconds he found a purchase with his feet, began to force his back up the rock face behind him. A few painful inches, another moment of seeming immobility. Then he managed to get one knee under the lip of the crawl-ledge, found a better foothold, thrust his head up into the clear.
There was a ledge behind him, breast-high. He turned once more, pushed himself up, got a knee over and crawled out of the pit. As he did so, perfectly clear in the still black air, he heard a long hiss. The scratch of scales on stone. He could see nothing, but somewhere close to him in the blackness, he knew, there was a serpent.
He shuddered involuntarily. The dream of Loki, and the serpent pursuing up the staircase was still with him, and the moment when he found himself in the orm-garth of the gods. Yes, Svandis had explained it. The marks in his flesh where the snake had seemed to strike, they were his own mind playing tricks on him like women believing themselves pregnant. The dream of the climbing feet and the orm-garth, they came from a memory of Brand and a mixture of guilt and fear at the death of Ragnar.
But Shef had seen the death of Ragnar, had seen the adders strike him and the face turn blue and swollen. That had been no dream, and this was no dream either. There was a real snake somewhere in the blackness. Snakes had senses humans did not. It could detect him, could strike before he could raise a hand to defend himself.
There was someone in the blackness close to him as well. Some one, not some beast. Shef’s sensitive ears could catch a faint scuff of sole on stone. At the same instant Shef felt around his neck an embrace of cold scales. A snake as thick as his arm had been dropped round his neck.
It was the faint reek of sweat that saved him. If it had not been for that he might have shrieked, clutched unavailingly for the neck of the thing round him, been bitten again and again by the angry rat-snake, and perhaps run fruitlessly into the darkness, there to die, not of poison—for the rat-snake held no more in its fangs than was needed for its rodent prey—but of thirst and despair. But the sweat-stink was that of Thierry. Shef realized in the same instant that Thierry must have come round the rock-wall which he had been made to climb under, had no doubt seen or sensed his progress all the way, was here to administer the next stage of his test. Was waiting for the stranger to flee in panic.
Shef stood stock-still, felt a forked tongue flicker across his face as the snake got its bearings, felt the scales rasp slowly across neck and body and leg as it determined which way to go and slithered down to the ground and off about its business. After it had gone Shef stood for a while motionless. Not from fear. He was beginning to grow angry at the way he was always held at disadvantage, at the thought of Thierry laughing silently in the dark. He mastered the anger, considered what he had already learned.
These people were testing him. They did not mean to kill him, so much was clear. If they had meant to kill him, he would be dead already. They were testing him. And they wanted him to pass the test. If he did, they would want something from him once he had passed. That did not mean that they would not kill him if he failed.
The sensible thing was to walk slowly forward, and to be alert for the next test. They would try to surprise him. Do not react instantly, whatever they do. He stepped forward, feeling carefully for footing with each step, arms spread wide for balance and warning.
Someone gripped him round the body. Again, he could not repress the jump, the shudder of fear. But this was no hostile attack. The arms that closed round him from in front were warm and naked, an embrace not a grapple. Lips kissed him suddenly on the chest. Automatically he closed his own arms round the person who held him. A woman. He could feel her breasts push against him. A naked woman. He dropped his hands, felt her buttocks, felt her immediately respond and push close against him, moving her groin up and down against his.