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Andre Norton - Web of the Witch World

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Web of the Witch World
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The troop clattered through Romsgarth, a central gathering point for the farms of the slopes. Since it was not market day their swift passage awoke interest from the early stirring townsfolk and there were calls of inquiry as they passed. Simon saw Durstan wave to the town guard, and knew they would leave a watchful and ready post behind them. The Old Race might be destined to go down to defeat, their neighbors snarling at their borders. But they would take a large number of those enemies with them in the final battle. And that knowledge was one of the things which kept Alizon and Karsten from yet making the fatal move of outright invasion.

Some leagues beyond Romsgarth Jaelithe signaled a halt. She rode barehead, her helmet swinging at her saddle horn. And now she turned her head slowly from right to left, as if she could scent the path of the quarry. But Simon had already caught the trace.

“There!” The sensation of danger which had been with him since waking focused unerringly. A track split south from the main road. Across it lay a fallen tree and that trunk bore fresh scars on its bark. One of the troop dismounted to inspect.

“Scrapes of hooves—recent—”

“Infiltrate,” Simon ordered.

They spread out, not to use the artery of the half-closed path, but working in through brush, among trees. Jaelithe took up her helmet.

“Make haste!”

This ground was right for ambush; to run into attack was the choice of a fool. But Simon nodded. What had brought them here was building to a climax. Jaelithe pressed heels to her mount, jumped the log, headed down the path with Simon spurring to catch up with her again. To any watcher it might seem they were alone, his men remained behind.

The wind in their faces was sea-scented. Somewhere ahead an inlet in the coast waited. Was a ship there—to make a quick pickup and then to sea—to Karsten? What had brought Loyse into such danger? He wished for the Falconers and their trained birds to spy on what lay ahead.

Simon could hear the rustling advance of his men—they would certainly not go unheralded in this country. His mount flung up its head and neighed—to be answered from ahead. Then they came out in an open pocket of meadow sloping gently to beach in a cove. Two horses grazed there, saddles empty. And well out stood a ship, its painted sail belly-rounded by the wind, it was far beyond their reaching.

Jaelithe dismounted, ran towards a splotch of color on the beach and Simon followed her. He stood looking down at a woman. Her face was oddly blank and calm, though both her hands were tight upon the blade which had been driven into her. To Simon she was a stranger.

“Who?”

Jaelithe frowned. “I have seen her. She was from across the mountains. Her name—” From storehouse of memory she produced it in triumph. “Her name was Berthora and she once lived in Kars!”

“Lord!”

Simon looked to where one of the troop beckoned. He went to see what was mounted on the very edge of the wave-lapped shore. A spear driven deep into the sand so that it stood uprightly defiant held a mail gauntlet. He did not need any words of explanation. Karsten had been and gone, and wanted that coming and going known. Yvian had declared open battle. Simon’s hand closed upon that gauge and pulled it loose.

2 BORDER FORAY

THE RAYS of the lights centered on the glittering thing in the middle of the board, making it seem to ripple with a mindless life of its own. Yet it was but a glove, sweat-stained leather palm down, mailed back up.

“She left two days ago, but the why no one can say—” Bleak voice from which the fellowship had chilled away, leaving only grim purpose. Koris of Gorm stood at the end of the table, leaning forward, his hands so tight about the haft of his war ax that his knuckles were sharp ridges. “Last eve—last eve I discovered it! By what devil’s string was she tolled here?”

“We can take it,” Simon replied, “that this is Karsten’s doing and the why we can guess.” More “whys” than one, he thought, and meeting Jaelithe’s gaze, knew that she shared that guess or guesses. With Koris so emotionally involved this kidnaping would upset the delicate balance of Estcarp defense. Not even witch power was going to keep the young seneschal from Loyse’s trail, at least not until he had a chance to cool off and begin to really think again. But had that ship borne away Jaelithe would he, Simon, have been any the different?

“Kars falls.” A simple statement, fact when delivered in that tone of voice.

“Just like that?” Simon retorted. For Koris to go whirling over the border now with such a force as he could gather in a hurry was the worst stupidity Simon knew. “Yes, Kars falls—but by planning, not by attack without thought behind it.”

“Koris—” Jaelithe’s long-fingered hand came out into the light which had gathered about Yvian’s battle gauge, “do not lessen Loyse!”

She had his attention, had broken through to him when Simon had failed.

“Lessen her?”

“Remember Briant. Do not separate those in your mind now, Koris.”

Briant and Loyse—again she was right, his witch-wife; Simon gave respect where it was due. Loyse had ridden as the blank-shield mercenary Briant, had lived with Jaelithe in Kars, keeping watch in the very maw of the enemy, just as she had stormed into Sippar. And as Briant she had not only won free of Verlaine, but brought the captive Jaelithe with her at the beginning of her adventure, when all the might of that castle and its lord had been arrayed against her. The Loyse who was also Briant was no helpless maiden, but had a mind, will, and skills of her own.

“She is Yvian’s—by their twisted laws!” Koris’ ax moved into the light in a sweeping arc which bit deep, severing the stuff of the gauntlet as if it had been fashioned of clay.

“No—she is her own until she wills it otherwise, Koris. What manner of mischief was wrought to get her into their hands, I do not understand. But that it can hold her I doubt. However, think on this, my proud captain. Go you slashing into Kars as you wish, and she will then be a weapon for Yvian. The Kolder taint still lies there—and would you have her used against you as they can do?”

Koris’ head turned to her, he looked up to meet her gaze as he must always do from his dwarfish height. His too-wide shoulders were a little hunched, so that he had almost the stance of an animal poised for a killing leap.

“I do not leave her there.” Again a statement of fact.

“Nor do we,” Simon agreed. “But look you—they will expect us to be after such bait, and the trap will be waiting.”

Koris blinked. “So—and what then do you urge? To leave her wrest herself free? She has great courage—my lady—but she is not a witch. Nor can she, one against many, fight a war on her own!”

Simon was ready. Luckily he had had those few hours, before Koris and his guard had come pelting into the keep, to do some planning. Now he slapped a parchment map down beside the ax head still dividing the severed gauntlet.

“We do not ride directly for Kars. We could not reach that city without a full army and then we needs must fight all the way. Our van will enter the city at Yvian’s invitation.”

“Behind a war horn?” Koris demanded. “Shape changing—?” He was not so hostile now, beginning to think.

“After a fashion,” Simon told him. “We move here . . .”

There was a risk. He had been considering such an operation for weeks, but heretofore he had thought the balance against it too great. Now that they needed a lever against Karsten it was the best he could think of.

Koris studied the map. “Verlaine!” From that dot he glanced at Simon.

“Yvian wants Verlaine, has wanted it from the start. That was partly his reason for wedding Loyse. Not only does the wreckers’ treasure stored there beckon him—remember his men are mercenaries and must be paid when there is no loot in prospect—but that castle can also give him a raiders’ port from which to operate against us. And now, with the loot from the Old Race exhausted, he will need Verlaine the more. Fulk has been very wise, not venturing to Yvian’s territory. But suppose he would—”

“Trade Verlaine for Loyse! You mean that is what we shall do?” Koris’ handsome face was frown-twisted.

“Allow Yvian to believe he is going to get Verlaine without any trouble.” Simon put together the ideas he had been holding in mind. As he spoke Koris’ frown faded, he had the concentration of a general picking at a piece of strategy seeking weaknesses. But he did not interrupt as Simon continued adding the facts which his scouts had garnered to the reports of the Falconers, lacing the whole together with his knowledge of such warfare from the past.

“A ship on the rocks will bring them out to plunder. Fulk will have a guard still in the castle, yes. But they will not be watching the ways within his own walls which he does not know. Those were Loyse’s ways and my lady knows them. A party coming down from the mountains will burrow in thus, and the heart of the keep is ours. We can settle then with those combing the shore for loot.”

“It will take time—and a storm—at the proper day and luck—” But Koris’ protests were feather-light and Simon knew it. The seneschal would agree to his plan; the danger of a headlong storming into enemy territory was past. At least as long as Koris could be occupied with Verlaine.

“As for time,” Simon rolled up the map, “we have been moving to this goal for a day or more. I have sent a message to the Falconers and they have infiltrated the peaks. There are Borderer scouts who know every trail in that cutback, and Sulcarmen will man one of the derelicts from Sippar harbor. With new sails it will ride well enough, the waterlogging setting it deep enough in the waves to seem full cargoed, and it can bear merchant symbols of Alizon. The storm—”

Jaelithe laughed. “Ah, the storm! Do you forget that wind and wave are liegemen to us, Simon? I shall see to wind and wave when the hour ripens.”

“But—?” Koris looked up at her again in open question.

“But you deem me now powerless, Koris? It is far otherwise, I assure you!” Her voice rang out joyfully. “Let me but claim back my jewel and you shall have the proof of that. So, Simon, while you ride for the border and your spider’s web about Fulk’s hold, I will speed to Es Castle and that which I must have again.”

He nodded. But deep within him that faint pain pricked once again. She had laid aside the jewel for him—seemingly with joy and content. Only now that she knew she was not bereft of what she thought she had lost, that sacrifice no sacrifice at all, she had put on once again that old cloak to cover the inner places she had revealed to him. And between them was the shadow of division. A chill grew from his fear. Would that division grow stronger—perhaps into a wall? Simon thrust the thoughts away; there was Verlaine to consider now.

Simon sent out the summoning—not by hill beacon which would alert any Karstenian spy in the heights—but by witch sending where it was possible, by rider where it was not. The hill garrisons were thinned—here five men, there ten or a dozen. And those so chosen rode in small parties into the mountains as if on routine patrol, to keep apart until the final word.

Koris dealt with Anner Osberic whose Sulcar merchant-raiders had homed to Es Port now that their coast keep was lost. There was a move to take over Gorm as a base. But as yet men shunned that tragic isle in the bay with its haunted city of Sippar, where the citadel left by the Kolder was sealed under the will of the Guardians of Estcarp, lest the outland knowledge of the enemy be ill-used. Osberic’s father had died at Sulcarkeep, his hate for the Kolder and all their ilk ran sea-deep and harsh as any storm, and his knowledge of wind and wave, while not that of a witch, was great. If he could not control storms, he could ride them. And he and his men had been demanding action against the enemy. This dangerous game with a wreckers’ castle for the bait would please them greatly.

The plan was in motion, all they needed was an agreed striking time. Simon lay flat on a crag ledge. The day was gray, but no fog spoiled his watch of the rounded walls, the two sky-arching towers which were Verlaine. He cupped in his hand one of Estcarp’s equivalents of field glasses, a lens of transparent quartz. Down in that gazing oval was tiny, but very distinct and clear, one of the claw-shaped reefs which harvested the sea for the wreckers. Anner would put his pseudo-merchantman on course to crack up on that reef, about mid-point—far enough from the castle to draw the men well away from the walls, but not so far as to suggest danger in garnering the wreckage.

The gray sky, the moist air, warned of a storm. But they needed a controlled fury to work on time schedule.

Simon continued to check the terrain before him via glass, but his thoughts strayed. Jaelithe had gone to Es Castle and the Guardians, alive and vibrant in her exultation over her discovery that as a witch she had not been rendered impotent. But since then, no word from out of the north that bore any news of her, none of that mental touch Simon had come to expect as a tie between them. Almost he could believe now that those weeks in South Keep had been a dream, that he had never held the fulfillment of desires he had never realized existed within him, until they had become wrapped in flesh and blood in his arms; he now knew a place which was beyond earth and stars, beyond self, when another shared it.

And that chill fear which had been only a spark in the beginning grew, that wall he sensed took on solid shape. So that he must strive to keep his thoughts away from that path lest he, too, as Koris might, go storming away from duty to seek her.

Time was short, very short. This night, Simon thought, as he slipped the seeing stone back in his belt pocket, this night ought to see their move. Before she had left him Jaelithe had laid the knowledge of the underground ways into his mind. Last night he, Ingvald and Durstan had descended into the cave which was the beginning of those passages, gazed unwillingly at the ancient altar there, raised to gods long since vanished with the dust of those who had worshiped them. They had felt also that throat-choking residue of something which still hung there, which fed upon Simon’s own gift of extra-sense, until he had to impose iron control on his shaking body. More than one sort of power had been in use on this somber continent of an old, old world.

He slipped down from the crag now, made his way to the pocket where three of the Borderer scouts and a Falconer sat cross-legged, as if they would warm themselves at a fire they dared not light.

“No word?”

A foolish question, Simon thought, even as he asked it. He would have known it if she were here. But the boy in the leather and mail of the scout force came lithely to his feet to answer.

“Message from the seneschal, Lord. Captain Osberic has the ship readied. He will loose her on signal, but does not know how long the wind will serve.”

Time . . . Simon tried to gauge the wind, though he did not have any sea knowledge. If Jaelithe did not come—then still they must move and risk the greater peril inherent in a true storm, with no aid of witchcraft. It must be tonight, or no later than tomorrow.


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