King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 8, 9, 10

“But how could that become a holy thing? Like the chalice of the Last Supper.”

“Have you ever thought,” inquired Bruno, leaning back in his camp-chair, “what happened after the Crucifixion?”

Erkenbert shook his head dumbly.

“Well, the Romans didn’t take Our Lord, did they? I expect my ancestor Longinus”—Erkenbert noted silently the promotion of Longinus from predecessor to ancestor—”he marched off back to barracks, looking at his lance and wondering, I should think. But the body, the body of Our Lord—well, you just said it, it was handed over to the Jews. The friendly ones, that is, not the ones who had him crucified. But if you wanted to know what happened next, you’d have to ask the Jews. Not the Romans, they’d all marched off, not the Christians, they were all hiding. And what do you think was the first thing they’d do?”

Erkenbert shook his head mutely. He had a terrifying sensation that something was building up here, something stemming from the past, from Bruno’s own past, with terrible ramifications for the future. He had no idea what it was.

Bruno poured two large goblets of wine from the handy pitcher and pushed one over to Erkenbert. “Thirsty work, talking,” he remarked, his face taking on once more its unexpected glow of amiability and good fellowship.

“Now, have you ever really thought seriously about how to crucify someone? And how you de-crucify them? Eh?”

Shef lay in his hammock slung between the rail and the forward catapult mounting. A faint breeze moderated the heat still rising from the wooden decks, and the ship rocked gently on an almost motionless sea. Round him seventy men slept also, some in hammocks, some stretched out on deck. Above them the stars burned brightly in a clearer sky than any they had seen before.

In his dream, Shef knew he was far, far below earth, or sea, or sky. He was on some kind of gigantic stairway. A stairway so huge that he could only just reach the top of the next step with his fingertips. He might be able to jump, haul himself up, get a knee over the edge and scramble on to the next step. How often could he do that before weariness took him?

And there was something coming up the steps towards him. Something enormous, that dwarfed him as he would dwarf a mouse. He could feel vibrations through the cold wet stone, a thump—thump—thump of enormous feet climbing the stair. A waft of malice and malevolence crept up the stair ahead of the feet. If the thing that was climbing saw him it would stamp down on him as surely as he would crush a poison-spider. A faint light was beginning to glow from down below as well. The thing that was coming would see him.

Shef glanced around, already imagining his own flesh and blood spattered across the stone. No way up that did not lead to being overtaken. No point in going down. To the side. He sprang across, began to grope in the dim light across the side of the stairway. There was something there, a wooden strip or lining. And he was like a mouse. From years before Shef remembered his own vision of himself as Völund the lame smith, and Farman priest of Frey peering up at him from the floor like a mouse from the wainscoting. Now he was the mouse, and Farman—the thumping feet on the stair called Shef back from thoughts of the quiet Wisdom-House to his immediate reality.

A crack in the wood. Shef began to squeeze himself into it, first headfirst, then realizing that that might leave him unable to see the menace behind, pulling out and reversing in, careless of splinters tearing his tunic and digging into the skin.

He was back, covered at least from direct vision. He pulled his head back even further, knowing that nothing shows up so well in the dark as pale skin. There was still a line of sight. As the thump—thump—thump of feet became deafening, Shef saw a face cross his limited vision.

A set, cruel face, marked and pitted with poison. The face of Loki Baldersbane, free from his eternal prison, from the snake ever-dripping venom into his eyes when his loyal wife did not intercept it. The face of someone set on vengeance. Vengeance for unforgivable injustice.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry