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Andre Norton - Web of the Witch World

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Web of the Witch World
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“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.

A sharp bird call and the black-and-white falcon that was ears and eyes for Uncar spiralled down to settle on its master’s fist.

“The seneschal comes,” Uncar reported.

Simon had never understood the tie between man and bird, but he had long ago learned that such reports were accurate and that the hawk range of the Falconers was far more effective than any human scouting in these heights. Koris was on the prowl, and this time Simon would have to agree with the other’s urging to move. But where was Jaelithe?

In spite of his ungainly body Koris moved with the economy of action marking an experienced fighting man. The huge ax he had taken from the hand of legendary Volt in the bird-god’s hidden tomb was muffled in a riding cloak, but he wore his winged helmet and came armed for battle. That handsome face, so ill supported by his misshapen body, was grimly alight as Simon had seen it before upon occasion.

“This night we move! Anner says that wind and wave favor us. He can not promise so later.” He hesitated and then added in a lower voice, “There is no word from the north.”

“So be it! Pass the signal, Waldis. At dusk we move.”

The boy disappeared arrow-swift between the rocks. Uncar’s lean face showed within the narrow opening of his bird-head helm.

“The rain comes. It will favor us that much more. At dusk, March Warder—” Hawk on wrist he followed Waldis, to bring up his men.

There was no true sunset; the gathering clouds were far too heavy. And the wave action was stronger. Soon Osberic would loose his bait ship. The wreckers had three watch points—two on the reef and one on the center tower of the hold; all would be manned in ill weather. Those on the reef need not be feared, but the sentry post on the tower also overlooked those fields through which the attackers must move. And though they had marked every bit of cover on that approach, Simon was worried. An early rain would give them cover.

But the storm winds came before the rain. And they had only the dusk to cloak them as the line of Borderers and Falconers sifted down to the entrance hole, climbed into the dark beneath. There was a sudden gleam and Simon heard an exclamation from Koris.

The blade of Volt’s ax shone with light. And Simon sensed a stir of the force from the crumbling altar, the rising of an energy beyond his ability to describe, but one he feared.

“A battle light!” Koris’ humorless laugh followed. “I thank you, Volt, for this added favor!”

“Move!” Simon ordered. “You do not know what may wake here with that blade!”

They found the entrance to the passage quickly. There was a tingling in Simon’s skin, his hair lifting despite the weight of his helmet, answering the electricity in this place. Here the walls were slimed with oily streaks of moisture which shone in their journey lights, and a moldering, rotten stench thickened as they went. Underfoot, the flooring vibrated to the pound of rising waves not too far away.

A stair before them, where silvery trails crossed and recrossed the stone, as if giant slugs had made highways there for countless generations. Up and up. All Jaelithe’s knowledge of these passages was gained during her flight through them. Loyse had discovered and used them for her purposes, and Simon wished he had her direction now. But he must be certain of his goal and not explore. They would emerge in the tower chamber which had once been Loyse’s; from there they could spread to take Fulk’s hold—always providing the bulk of his garrison were occupied elsewhere.

The steps rose endlessly, and then Simon’s counting ceased. There were still steps ahead, but this landing had counted out correctly for the door. And he could see the simple latch which held on this side. Luckily, the builder who had devised these ways had not concealed such catches. He bore down and a five-foot oval swung away.

Even here they had to use journey lights for the room was dark. A canopied cavern of a bed faced them. There was a chest at its foot, another under the window slits outside of which howled storm wind.

“Signal!” Simon need not have given that order. One of Koris’ guard had leaped on the chest, his arm up to thrust open the covering on the slit. Then the beat of the vibration pattern winked through all their journey lights, as it would through Anner Osberic’s if he were in position. The ship would be released. Now they had only to wait until the alarm of her coming would awake the castle.

But that waiting was the worst for all of them, keyed to action as they were. Two small parties, one under Ingvald, and one of Falconers under Uncar’s command, went back to the wall ways to explore. Uncar reported another door giving upon an empty sleeping chamber, providing a second exit.

Still time dragged and Simon mentally listed the many things which might go wrong. Fulk would be prepared for invasion from without. He had his scouts, as they had discovered in the pass. But this passage had never been discovered as far as Loyse knew.

“Ahhhh—” Someone nearby breathed a sigh of relief, which was swallowed in a blast of brazen clamor from just above their heads, startling them all.

“That is it!” Koris caught at Simon’s shoulder and then pushed past him to the door of the chamber. “The wreck tocsin! That will shake these rats out of their holes!”

3 BLACK NIGHT

PATIENCE. Long ago Loyse had learned patience. Now she must use it again as a weapon against fear and the panic which was chill in her, a choking band about her throat, a crushing weight upon her. Patience—and her wits—that was all they had left her.

It was quiet enough in this room where she had been left to herself at long last. There was no need to rise from the chair and try the window shutters or the door. They had even stripped the bed curtains from their supports. Lest she try some mischief against herself, she supposed. But it had not come to that yet; oh, no, not to that. Loyse’s lips shaped a shadow smile, but the glint in her eyes was not that of amusement.

She felt very faint, and it was hard to think clearly when the room spun in dizzy sideslips from time to time. Nausea had racked her on board the coasting ship—then she had not eaten for a long time.

How long a time? She began to reckon childishly on her fingers, turning them down in turn, trying to put a memory to each. Three, four, five days?

A face etched on her mind for all time—the dark-haired woman who had come to her in Es Castle in the early morning with a tale. What tale?

Loyse fought for a clear memory of that meeting. And the fear cloud grew thicker as she realized that this was no mental haziness born of nausea and shock, this was a blocking out which had no connection with her body or emotions. There had been a woman—Berthora! Loyse had a flash of triumph when she was able to set name to the woman. And Berthora had brought her out of Es Castle with a message.

But what was that message and from whom? Why, oh, why had she been so secretive about riding forth from Es with Berthora? There were fleeting memories of a wood road, and a storm—with the two of them sheltering among rocks while rain and wind made fury in the night. Then, a meadow sloping to the sea where they waited.

Why? Why had she remained there so calmly with Berthora, feeling no uneasiness, no warning! Ensorcelled? Had she been power-moved? But no—that she could not believe. Estcarp was friend, not enemy. And now that Loyse pieced together these ragged tatters of memory, she was very certain that Berthora had moved in haste and as a fugitive in enemy territory. Did Karsten also have its witches?

Loyse pressed her hands against her cheeks, cold flesh meeting cold flesh. To believe that was to negate all she knew of her own land. There were no witches in Karsten since the Old Race had been three times horned, outlawed to be killed on sight. Yet she was certain, just as certain, that she had been spellbound, spellled, to that meeting with the ship from the south.

There was something more—something about Berthora. She must remember, for it was important! Loyse bit her knuckles and fought her queasiness, the haze in her mind, fought grimly to remember. At last she achieved a bit of a picture . . .

Berthora crying out—first in entreaty, and then in despairing anger—though it was her tone rather than her words that Loyse recalled. And one of those from the ship striking at her with a callous casualness. Berthora stumbling back, her hands on the sword which had given her death, so fast upon that blade that its owner could not pull it free. Then an order, and another man bending over Berthora, fumbling in her riding tunic, bringing forth a hand clenched about something, something Loyse had not seen.

Berthora had delivered her to Karsten, and had been paid with death. But to aid in that delivering Berthora had had some weapon beyond Loyse’s knowledge.

How it had been done must not concern her now. That it was done . . . Loyse forced her hand down from her mouth, made it rest on her knee. She was in Kars, in Yvain’s hold. If they had sought her in Estcarp, were seeking her now, they could only conjecture as to where she had been taken. As for plucking her forth again—It would take an army to break open Karsten, such an army as Estcarp could not put in the field. Loyse had listened enough to the councils of war to know just how precarious was the Old Kingdom. Let them strip the country to invade Karsten and Alizon would snap down from the north.

In Verlaine once she had been one against all the might of Fulk, with no friend within that sea-pounded pile. Here she was one against many again. If she did not feel so sick and dizzy she could think more clearly! But to move made the floor under her dusty riding boots heave and roll as had the deck of the coaster.

The door opened and a flare of a hand lamp struck at her through the dusk, blinding her so that she must squint up at those who stood there. Three of them, two in the livery of ducal servants, one holding the lamp, the other a tray of covered dishes. But the third, that slender figure with a scarf about head and shoulders in masking concealment—Putting down lamp and tray on the table the serving women left, closing the door behind them. Only when they had gone did that other come into the full light, twitch aside her veiling to view Loyse eye to eye.

She stood taller than the heiress of Verlaine, and her figure had a delicate grace Loyse could not claim. She wore her fair hair looped in intricate plaiting, the whole snooded in a gem-spangled net. And there were more jewels at her throat, her girdle, braceleting her arms above the tight fabric of her sleeves, ringing each finger. As if she had set out the wealth of her gem caskets with purpose to overawe the beholder. Yet, looking beyond all that glitter to her calm eyes, her serene expression, Loyse thought such a gesture could only be a screen. The wearer of that wealth might do it because it was expected of her, not because she needed support of her treasures at this meeting.

Now her hand, with its glinting burden, advanced and she picked up the lamp to hold it higher, facing Loyse with a measuring look which stung, but under which the girl sat unmoving. She could not match the other’s beauty. Where this one was golden-haired, Loyse was bleached to fading; where this one was all grace, not studied but instinctive, Loyse was awkward angularity. Nor could she pride herself as to wit, for the Lady Aldis was noted for her astute moves in the murky waters of Yvian’s court.

“You must have more to you than appears,” Aldis broke the silence first. “But that lies far buried, my lady duchess.” The sober appraisal of that speech became mockery at its close.

Lamp still in hand, Aldis swept a curtsy which made her skirts swing in a graceful swirl not one woman in a hundred could have equaled. “My lady duchess, you are served—pray partake. Doubtless the fare upon which you were forced to break your fast of late has not been of the best.”

She returned the lamp to the table and drew up a stool, her manners a subtly contemptuous counterfeit of a servant’s deference. When Loyse neither moved nor answered, Aldis set forefinger to lip as if puzzled, and then smiled.

“Ah—I have not been named to your fair grace, have I? My name is Aldis, and it is my pleasure to welcome you to this, your city of Kars where you have long been awaited. Now, does it please you to dine, my lady duchess?”

“Is it not rather your city of Kars?” Loyse put no inflection into that question, it was as simply asked as a child might do. She knew not what role might aid her now, but to have Yvian’s mistress underrate his unwilling wife seemed a good move.

Aldis’ smile grew brighter. “Ill-natured tittle-tattle, gossip, such as should never have reached your ears, my lady duchess. When the chatelaine is missing, then there needs must be someone to see that all is done mannerly, as our lord duke would wish. I flatter myself in believing that you shall find little here, your fair grace, that must be changed.”

A threat—a warning? Yet if either, most lightly delivered in a tone which gave no emphasis. But Loyse believed that Aldis had no intention of yielding what power she had here to a wife married for reasons of state.

“The report of your death was a sad blow to our lord duke,” Aldis continued. “Where he was prepared to welcome a bride, came instead an account of an open tower window, a piece of torn robe, and the sea beneath—as if those waves were more welcome than his arms! A most upsetting thought to haunt our lord duke’s pillow by night. And how greatly relieved he was when came that other report—that Loyse of Verlaine had been bewitched out of her senses by those hags of the north, taken by them as hostage. But now all is well again, is it not? You are in Kars with a hundred hundred swords to keep a safe wall between you and the enemy. So eat, my lady duchess, and then rest The hour is not far off when you must look your best to ravish the eyes of your bridegroom.” The mockery was no longer light—cat-claws unsheathed to tear the deeper.

Aldis lifted the covers from the dishes on the tray and the odor of the food turned Loyse’s emptiness into a sudden pain. This was no time for pride or defiance.

She smeared her hand across her eyes as might a child who is come to the end of a crying bout, and got to her feet, clutching at the bed post to steady her steps. A lurch brought her to the table edge and she worked her way along the board to drop onto the stool.

“Poor child! You are indeed foredone—” But Aldis made no move to approach her and for that Loyse was thankful. A small part of her resented fiercely that the other watched while she had to use both hands to bring a goblet to her lips; her weakness was a betrayal.


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