King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 16, 17, 18

King and Emperor. Chapter 16, 17, 18

Chapter Sixteen

The man who faced Shef at the top of the ladder, youngest of the perfecti, hesitated as he saw the head of the barbarian king reach the level of the rock floor on which he stood and then continue mounting, rung by rung. He knew what he was supposed to do, had seen it done a dozen times before. If the candidate for election entered the Womb, passed the trials of the Serpent, the Woman, and Death, and climbed the graduale out of the Pit, then he should be met by the most junior of the Council, the one who had passed the trial himself most recently. And the junior should put a drawn sword to his breast and ask him the ritual question: How may an old man be born again? And enter again into the womb of his mother?

But it was supposed to happen in the dark! The candidate should have only the tiny candle-flame, symbol of the secret knowledge, and should see nothing till the sword was at his heart! It was only ritual by that stage, for every candidate, whether he was prepared or not for the trials, knew the question and the answer. But they were not supposed to see the tester or his sword till they were face to face.

In the lurid glow of the dry and burning corpses, Shef could see the man facing him perfectly clearly, could see the needle-pointed sword in his hand, could see too that he had no intention of using it. Behind the man at the front of the rock ledge sat a dozen more men in grey cowls, in a ring facing him. They too were supposed to be invisible until they spoke. As they realized they could be seen, the cowls looked this way and that, men shifted position, broke out in undignified whispers. To the tester and his comrades behind him Shef himself, rising out of the Pit with every stride, looked larger and larger, his shadow reaching out in front of him with a menace in it, as if the men murdered to outfit the trial chamber had sent a representative to take their revenge. The gold circlet on Shef’s head and the gold bracelets on his biceps caught the red glow and sent angry glints across the secret chamber.

“Why did you do that?” hissed the tester. “I mean…” The test had already gone wrong. He stretched the sword forward, found his wrist grasped easily by a man far his superior in strength.

“Try again,” said Shef.

“How may a man be born again? And enter again into the womb of his mother?”

The question of his dream, Shef thought. He had not known the answer then. But he had just undergone a test, and passed it. The answer to this must have something to do with the form of the test. Something Christian, or half-Christian at least. How would Father Andreas have answered? Thoughtfully, using the Arabic in which he had been addressed, the common speech of the border, Shef replied, “Cast aside fear. And lust. And the fear of death. And so climb out of the grave.”

“That is not the answer! Not in the true words.”

“It’s near enough,” said Shef. The wrist he was holding was thin, that of a hunter or a shepherd, or even a priest, not a plowman. With a sudden exertion of his smithy-hardened muscles he bent it backwards, heard a gasp of pain, and the sword ring on the stone floor. He released the wrist, stopped and picked the sword up. Slight curve, one edge, needle-point. A back-stabber’s weapon. Holding it in his right hand he stepped towards the seated half-circle, stood looking grimly down at them.

“Why did you set the—the men on fire?” asked the cowl in the center.

“Because they were men. Like you and me. I do not mind killing people, but I will not have them mocked in death. Among the men of the North burning is as good as burial.

“Now. You brought me here by stealing my woman. You gave me a test and I have passed it. You must have something to say to me. Say it. I expect there is an easier way out of here than the way I came. Say your piece and then let us all go home. And for the love of all the gods, light some candles! I have no wish to speak in darkness or by the flames of a funeral pyre.”

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