King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 14, 15

A week before, sunk in the doubt of his own impotence, Shef might not have responded. Since then there had been Svandis. She had roused him, had proved to him that the fear and horror that had lain on him since the death of Queen Ragnhild were not of the body, only of the mind. She had shown it to him half a score of times since, his body was roused and full of repressed youth. Before he could so much as think of it, Shef’s manhood had responded, was rising urgently. The woman felt it, seized it in her hands with a throaty chuckle of triumph, began to sink backwards. He could roll with her on to the stone, take his fill of her here in the dark, clasp her deep and spurt the seed into her here where the sun never came.

A test. Don’t respond. The thought of the dark and the lost passages everywhere around bit cold into Shef’s heart. The woman could not escape him now he had hands on her, but once he was done, what then? She would slide into the darkness like the snake, and he would be left, alone and a failure. While the testers, whoever they were, watched and mocked.

Shef straightened, gently pulled the woman’s hand from him. She came back, pressing herself to him and moaning with passion. She was lying. Her moans were pretense. He unwound the arms from his body, pushed her to arm’s length. As she twisted he turned her round, slapped her sharply low down, pushed her away.

He heard her bare feet on the stone for a pace or two. And then, almost dazzling to eyes long groping in the black, a candle-flame. She had lifted a hood from a candle, and for an instant he saw her, naked, squat and middle-aged, vanishing into a cleft in the rock.

Shef turned back in the direction he had been going, and this time, leapt instantly two yards backwards.

A corpse-face had looked into his from no more than a foot away, yellow, rotten, its teeth bared, the eyeballs sunk to mere shreds of leather.

It was hanging from the roof, with half a dozen more. He had been meant to see them at the same moment as the woman vanished, Shef realized. But the closest was on his blind eye, he had not seen it till he turned. Maybe he had been spared the first shock. And now the shock was over: it was a test. Don’t respond. At least he now had light to see. Shef walked over and picked up the candle before doing anything else.

The corpses. He did not think these would be their own folk, used in a trial. They buried their dead in stone up here, so he had been told. Every village had its secret sarcophagi somewhere, as every English village had its churchyard and every Norse one its barrows and burning-grounds. No, they did not look like villagers. One there had the face of a Moor, another still on him the leather, but not the mail, of a Frankish lancer. Wayfarers, maybe tax-collectors, ambushed in the mountains and kept here for use. The bodies swung on their ropes like the smoked corpses in the house of Echegorgun the troll. But these were dry, dry as tinder, mummified in the dry cold of the high mountain caves. Shef took a piece of cloth between his fingers, felt it crumble. Yes, dry as tinder. He could not bury these folk. But whoever they were, they did not deserve to hang here for ever. He could give them a sort of burial.

Stepping on from one corpse to another, Shef held the candle at the rags of clothing, watched them catch and flare, begin to work on the dry withered flesh beneath. As he walked forward a red glow filled the cave, showed him its full extent to either side, more paintings on the walls.

In front of him another rock face, but no more than eight feet high. Propped against it as if in invitation, a pole-ladder, for all the world like the one he carried on his own breast.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry