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Andre Norton - Web of the Witch World

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Web of the Witch World
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But Aldis did not matter now. What did was restoring the wavering strength of her body, clearing her head. That Aldis had come here might in turn lead to something. Though Loyse could not yet see the advantage in the visit.

Warmth from the liquid she swallowed spread through her; the surface fear ebbed. Loyse put down the goblet. She did not want a wine-born muzziness clouding her thoughts. Now she pulled a bowl of soup to her and began to spoon it up, the savor of it reaching her. Duke Yvian was well served by his cooks. Against her will Loyse relaxed, relished her supper.

“Boar in red wine,” Aldis commented brightly. “A dish you shall find often before you, lady; since our gracious lord relishes it. Jappon, the chief cook, has a master hand for it. My lord duke expects us to mark his likes and dislikes and be attentive to them.”

Loyse took another sip of wine. “Vintage of a good year,” she commented, striving to hold her voice to the same even lightness. “It would seem that this lord duke of yours has also a palate. I would have believed tavern wine more to his taste, since his first man draughts came from such casks—”

Aldis smiled more sweetly. “Our lord duke does not mind allusions to his somewhat—shall we say—irregular beginnings. That he won Karsten by the might of his sword arm—”

“And the backing of his blank-shields,” Loyse cut in blandly.

“And the loyalty of his followers,” Aldis agreed. “He feels pride in that fact and often speaks of it in company.”

“One who climbs to heights must beware of the footing,” Loyse broke a slice of the nut-flour bread in twain and nibbled its crust.

“One who rises to heights makes very sure that the footing on that height is smoothed,” Aldis countered. “He has learned not to leave aught to chance, for Fortune is fickle.”

“And wisdom must balance all swords,” Loyse replied with a hill proverb. The food had drawn her out of her misery. But—no overconfidence. Yvian was no stupid sword swinger, easily befooled. He had won Karsten by wits as well as fighting. And this Aldis— Walk softly, Loyse, walk softly, beware of every leaf rustle.

“Our lord duke is paramount in all things, with sword, in the council chamber and—in bed. Nor is his body misshapen—”

Loyse hoped her sudden freeze had gone unnoted, but she doubted that. And Aldis’ next oblique shaft confirmed that doubt.

“They speak of great deeds done in the north, and that a certain misborn, misshapen churl who swings a stolen ax there led the van—”

“So?” Loyse yawned and then yawned again. Her fatigue was not pretended. “Rumor always wags a wide tongue. I have eaten; is it now permitted that I sleep?”

“But, my lady duchess, you speak as one who considers herself a prisoner. Whereas you are paramount lady in all Kars and Karsten!”

“A thing I shall keep in mind. But still, that thought, as uplifting as it is, gives me not as much joy as some rest would do. I bid you good eve, my Lady Aldis.”

Another smile, a tinkle of laughter, and she did go.

But nothing covered the sound Loyse listened for—the scrape of key in lock. Paramount lady she might be in Kars, but this night she was also prisoner within this chamber—and the key lay in other hands. Loyse sucked her lower lip against her teeth as she considered what that might lead to.

She gave the room a measuring survey. The uncurtained bed, as was usual in a room of state, stood on a two step dais above the flooring. There were windows in two walls. But as she loosed the inner shutters of one after another, she discovered beyond a netting of metal mesh through which she might thrust her fingers to the second joint, but no farther to freedom.

There was a chest against the far wall, wherein lay some garments she did not examine past the first glance. But she was still tired, her whole body ached to stretch out on the bed. There was one more task she set herself to, and it was one which left her weak and trembling. Sleep she must, but no one would come upon her unawares, for the table was now an inner barrier across the door.

Though she was so tired she felt that it would require a vast effort to raise her hand to her head, sleep did not come as Loyse lay there, staring up into the rafter frame which had supported canopy and curtains. She had not turned down the lamp and that made a fine glow by which she could see every part of the chamber.

In the past she had known a similar disquiet—strongest of all in that temple or shrine of the forgotten race where the hidden passages of Verlaine opened to the clean sky. The hidden ways of Verlaine . . . For a moment it was as if their dankness, the acrid odor of them, was about her now. Witchcraft! You could sniff it when you had known it before. Loyse’s nostrils pinched as she drew in a deep lungful of air. After all, she did not know all the secrets of Estcarp—and once before she had had a part of one here in Kars, while she and Jaelithe had fished in many pools for such scraps of information as might aid the northern cause. So there could still be agents of the Guardians hereabouts.

The girl’s hands balled into the covers on either side of her thin body. If she only had a measure of their power! If she could loose a sending now—to be picked up by a receptive, friendly mind! She willed that fiercely, crying soundlessly—not really for help, but for a steadying sense of companionship. She had been alone once, but then had come Jaelithe, and Simon, the tall stranger whom she had instinctively trusted and—and Koris. A faint flush warmed her cheeks as she remembered Aldis’ sneers. Misborn, misshapen. Not true—never true! Mixed blood, yes—so that he united two strains to his own despite—the squat, powerful body of his Tor mother’s kin, the handsome head of his noble Gorm father. But above all men the one her heart fixed upon from the day she had found him with Simon, wearing blank-shield disguises, outside the gate here in Kars, drawn by Jaelithe’s sending.

Drawn by a sending . . . But she could not send! Once more Loyse fought her inner barrier, striving to break through. For there was the scent of witchcraft or at least of some other thing hereabouts. She was so sure of that! It roughened her skin, made her alert, waiting.

Loyse slipped from the bed, went to set her hands on the table across the doorway. Her arms straightened, she was pushing at that barrier. But something in her still unlulled, still awake, battled against that compulsion to do this.

She backed away to the foot of the bed, facing the door. The key clicked, the latch loosed. The heavy slab swung back. Aldis again! For a moment Loyse relaxed. Then she stared into the other’s face. It was the same, exactly the same, feature by lovely feature. Yet—no!

And how it had changed she could not tell. There was even a little mocking smile still playing about those generously curved lips, the same expression on the fair face. Only Loyse knew, with every inch of her, that this was not the Aldis she had seen before.

“You are afraid,” Aldis’ voice, also. Exact—yet—no! “You have a right to fear, my lady duchess. Our lord duke does not like to be crossed. And you have played him several ill turns. He must make you truly his wife, you know that, or his purpose will not be served. And I do not think you will relish the manner of his wooing. No, I do not believe you shall find him a gentle lover willing to sue for your accord in the matter! Because you are in some ways a trouble to me, I shall allow you this much, my lady duchess.”

Flashing through the air to land on the bed by her right hand—a dagger. More a lady’s toy than the belt knives she had worn sheathed at her own hip, but still a weapon.

“A sting for you,” the Aldis who was not Aldis continued, her voice falling to a soft murmur so that now Loyse could hardly understand her words. “I wonder how you will choose to use it, lady duchess, Loyse of Verlaine, in one way—or another?”

Then she was gone. Loyse stared at the heavy wood of the now closed door, wondering how she had vanished so swiftly. As if she had been a thing without corporal body—an illusion.

Illusion! The weapon and defense of a witch. Had Aldis indeed ever stood there? Or was this some move on the part of an Estcarpian agent who could only aid Yvian’s captive in so much? But she would not nurse that thread of hope unduly.

Loyse turned to look at the bed, more than half expecting to find the blade gone, an illusion. But no. It lay there and under her hand it was solid, the whole slim length of it to needle point. The girl brought it to her breast, fondled it from simple cross hilt to that point. So she was to use it, was she? On whom? Yvian or herself? The choice had not seemed to matter to Aldis, or the semblance of Aldis, who had brought it to her.


SIMON STOOD on the mid-step of the stair listening. Below was the din of battle where the forces of Estcarp mopped up the main hall. The loud “Sul! Sul!” of the Sulcarmen echoed faintly to him. But he strained to hear something else, movement above. He had not been mistaken, of that he was sure. Somewhere ahead on this narrow stair was Fulk. And the cornered lord of Verlaine had the advantage of anyone who dare follow him to his last stand.

There! Scrape of metal on stone? What sort of a surprise was Fulk preparing for his pursuers? Yet Fulk, above all, they must take in order to carry out their plan for Karsten. And time worked against them as Fulk’s ally.

Simon edged on, his left shoulder pressed to the wall. So far their plan was working. The wrecked ship on the reef had opened Fulk’s shore gates, sent out his men, centered the attention of the keep there. So that the invaders had nearly occupied the hold before the castle garrison was aware of their move.

But that had not led to quick surrender; rather the wreckers fought as men must who have no escape behind, and an unforgiving enemy before. Only because Simon had been sent spinning out of one swirling segment of the hall battle had he seen the flight of the tall man, his helm gone so that his red-gold mane identified him. Unlike Fulk of all the legends Simon had heard, this skulker did not seek to rally his men, take the lead in the next furious drive against the Borderers. Instead he had dodged, ran, sought this inner stair. And Simon, still with head ringing from the blow which had shaken him out of the press, followed.

Again, metal on stone. He was very sure of it. Some other weapon more forceful than sword or ax being readied? The stair took an abrupt turn to the right just beyond, a yard-square landing was all he could see, the step up the other angle hidden. There was a globe light burning, but pallidly.

The light flickered. Simon drew a quick breath. If the lamp was on the verge of failing . . . But the flickering followed a pulsating pattern, almost as if its power had been sapped at regular intervals. Simon took another step, and another—the third would bring him to the landing and so exposed to what might be waiting on the other flight of stairs.

Flicker, flicker—he found himself counting those blinks. And now he was sure that each drained energy. Simon had never learned the secret of the globe lamps; they could be governed in intensity by tapping on wall plates set below each one, but as far as he knew the globes themselves never had to be renewed, and no one in Estcarp had been able to explain how they worked. Set in these castle piles ages ago their secret was forgotten.

Flicker again. Now the light was much dimmer. Simon whirled about the angle of the stair, his back to the wall, his dart gun ready. Four, six steps up and then the smooth forward run of a narrow corridor. At the top of those steps a barricade, stuff hastily dragged from rooms above. Was Fulk lying in wait to pick off the first to disturb that erection of stools and a table?

Somehow Simon was worried. Fulk’s actions were so contrary to all he had heard of the coast-lord. These were the moves of a man trying to buy time. Time for what? All Fulk’s forces were engaged below; he could not be attempting to assemble a relief. No, he was striving to get out himself! Why he was so certain of that Simon did not know, but he was convinced it was so.

Did Fulk know of an inner wall passage, was he hunting the exit now? No more sounds except that the muffled clamor from below lessened, the last of Fulk’s men must be cut down.

The blink, blink of the light grew feebler. Then he did hear a faint sound, and fighter’s instinct sent him scrambling down the stair angle. The white flash of an explosion! Simon, blinded by that glare, almost lost his footing. He rubbed his eyes.

Light, but no sound at all. Whatever force had been unleashed there was new to him. Now trails of smoke, acrid and throat rasping. Simon coughed, fought to see, but his eyes were still dazzled by the flash.

“Simon! What is here?”

Pound of feet on the stair. Simon caught a hazy glimpse of a winged helm.

“Fulk,” he answered. “Up there—but watch—”

“Fulk!” Koris’ long arm was out, solidly against the wall, supporting Simon. “But what does he up there?”

“What mischief he can, lord.” More steps on the stair and Ingvald’s voice to identify them.

“He is late to our meeting,” Koris commented.

“Do not rush in—” At last he was able to see again. But the light globe was now far sped. Simon slipped up on the landing, forestalling Koris. The flimsy barrier was gone. Some charred bits of wood, a drift of ash and stains on the wall marked its site.

No sound, no movement from the hall or from the doors opening into that way. Step by step Simon advanced. Then he heard a small scuffling from behind the first door. Before he could move the great ax of Volt swung down to hit that barrier. The door gave and they looked into a room, the window facing them was open, a trail of rope hung out of it, anchored within by the weight of a chest.

Koris laid the ax on the floor and set his hands to the rope. All the strength of his great shoulders and arms went into an upward pull as Simon and Ingvald moved to the window.

The night was dark, but not too shadowed to hide the scene below. That rope, meant to drop Fulk to a lower roof, was now ascending, even with Fulk’s weight upon it, past the point where the wrecker lord would dare leap free. Only—Simon saw the white oval which was Fulk’s face turned up to him. The dangling man, coming up to their waiting grasp through a series of pulls by Koris, deliberately loosened his hold on that line. He screamed aloud, a dreadful cry, as if he were protesting against his own action. Had he, until that last second, really believed he had a chance to land safely? But when he crashed down he lay there. An arm was lifted and fell again.

“He is still alive.” Simon reached for the rope. He did not understand the need which moved him now, but he must look upon Fulk’s face. “I must go down,” he added as the rope end whipped in the window and he sat about making it fast to his own waist.

“There is more in this than seems?” Koris asked.

“I believe so.”

“Then down with you. But take care, even a broken-backed serpent wears fangs in its jaws. And Fulk has no reason to let his enemies live after him.”

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