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Andre Norton - Web of the Witch World

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Web of the Witch World
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“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.”

Simon scrambled through the window slit, swung out as they lowered him down. His feet touched the surface of the lower roof. As he threw off the loop, the rope whipped aloft, and he went to that crumpled figure.

His journey light showed the sprawled body clearly.

And, as Simon went down on his knee he saw that, in spite of his injuries, Fulk of Verlaine still lived. By some chance the wrecker lord’s head turned with infinite and painful effort so that the eyes could meet his gaze.

At that moment of meeting Simon’s breath expelled in a hiss. He wanted to cry aloud his repudiation of what he saw there. Pain, yes—and hate. And something which was beyond both pain and hate—an emotion which was not of mankind that Simon knew. He said it aloud:

“Kolder!”

This was Kolder, the alien menace in the face of a dying man. Yet Fulk was not one of the “possessed,” the walking dead men whom Kolder used to fight its battles, the captives sapped of soul, made to cup within their bodies some enlivening power which clean humanity shrank from. No, Simon had seen the “possessed.” This was something else again. Because what had been Fulk was not totally erased; that part which bore pain and hate was growing stronger, and that which was Kolder faded.

“Fulk!” Koris had dropped to the roof, come with a loping stride to join Simon. “I am Koris—”

Fulk’s mouth worked, twisted. “I die . . . so will you . . . bog-loper!”

Koris shrugged. “As will all men, Fulk.”

Simon leaned closer. “And as will those who are not men also!”

He could not be sure that that remnant of fading Kolder understood. Fulk’s mouth worked again, but this time all that burst from his lips was blood. He strove to raise his head higher, but it fell back, and then his eyes were blank of all life.

Simon looked across the body to Koris. “He was Kolder,” he said quietly.

“But no—not possessed!”

“No, but still Kolder.”

“And of this you are sure?”

“As sure as I am of my own mind and body. Kolder in some manner, but still Fulk also.”

“What then have we uncovered here?” Koris was already visualizing horrors beyond. “If they have other servants among us beside the possessed—”

“Just so,” Simon replied grimly. “I would say that the Guardians must know of this and that speedily!”

“But the Kolder can not take over any of the Old Race,” Koris observed.

“So we shall continue to hope. But Kolder was here, and may be elsewhere. The prisoners—”

Again Koris shrugged. “Of those there are not too many, perhaps a dozen after that last battle in the hall. And they are mainly men-at-arms. Would Kolder pick such for its servants, save as possessed? Fulk, yes—he would be an excellent piece on their playing board. But look you at these and then tell us—if you can.”

Sun was a thick bar across the table. Simon fought the need for sleep, finding in his smoldering anger a good weapon in his struggle. He knew her, this gray-robed woman with her hair netted severely back from her rather harsh features, the cloudy jewel, which was her badge of office and sword of war, resting on her breast, her hands folded precisely before her. Knew her, though he could not give her a name—for no witch within Estcarp had a name. One’s name was one’s most private possession. Give that too lightly to the play of many tongues and one had delivered one’s innermost citadel into possible enemy hands.

“This then is your only word?” He did not try to modify his hardness of voice as he demanded that.

She did not smile, no expression troubled her calm gaze. “Not my word, March Warder, nor the word of any one of us, but the law by which we live. Jaelithe—” Simon thought he detected a hint of distaste in her voice as she spoke that name—”made her choice. There is no returning.”

“And if the power has not departed from her, what then? You cannot say that it is so by merely speaking words!”

She did not shrug, but something in her pose gave him the feeling that she had so dismissed his speech and his anger. “When one has held a thing, used it, then its shadow may linger with one for awhile, even though the center core of it be lost. Perhaps she can do things which are small shadows of what once she could work. But she cannot reclaim her jewel and be again one of our company. However, I think, March Warder, you did not summon a witch here merely to protest such a decision—which is none of your concern.” It snapped down, that unbreakable barrier between the witches and those outside that bond. Simon took tight rein on his temper. Because, of course, she was right. This was no time to fight Jaelithe’s battle, this was a time when a plan must move ahead.

He spoke crisply, explaining what must be done. The witch nodded.

“Shape-changing—for who among you?”

“Me, Ingvald, Koris and ten men of the Borderers.”

“I must see those who you would counterfeit.” She arose from her chair. “You have them ready?”

“Their bodies—”

She displayed no change of countenance at that information, only stood waiting for him to lead the way. They had laid them out at the far end of the hall, ten men selected from among the slain, led by the broken-nosed, scarred leader of the last defense who wore the insignia of an officer. And, a little apart, Fulk.

The witch paused by each in that line, staring intently into the pale faces, fitting them into her memory, with every mark of identification. This was her particular skill, and while any of her sisterhood could practice shape-changing upon the need, only one expert in the process could attempt such with the actual features of a man. instead of just a general disguise.

When she came to Fulk her survey was much longer as she stooped low, her eyes searching his face. From that lengthy examination, she turned to Simon.

“Lord, you are very right. There was more in this man than his own mind, soul, thoughts. Kolder—” The last word was a whisper, a husky sound. “And being Kolder, dare you take his place?”

“Our scheme depends upon Fulk entering Kars,” Simon returned. “And I am not Kolder—”

“As any other who might be Kolder would detect,” she warned.

“That I must risk.”

“So be it. Bring your men for the changing. Seven and three. And send all others from the hall, there must be no disturbing this.”

He nodded. This was not the first time he had known shape-changing, but then it had been a hurried grasping for quick disguise to get them out of Kars. Now he would be Fulk and that was a different thing altogether.

As Simon summoned his volunteers, the witch was busied with her own preparations, drawing on the stone flooring of the hall two five-pointed stars, one overlapping in part the other. In the center of each she placed a brazier from the small chest her Sulcar escort had carried in for her. And now she was carefully measuring various powders from an array of small tubes and vials, mixing them together in two heaps on squares of fine silk which had lines and patterns woven into their substances.

They could not strip the bodies, lest the stains and rents betray them. But there was plenty more clothing within the castle, and they would use the weapons, belts, and any personal ornaments the dead had worn, to finish off the picture they must present. This was heaped together waiting the end of the ceremony.

The witch cast her squares of silk into the braziers and began a low chant. Smoke arose to hide the men who had stripped and were now standing, one on each star point. The smoke mist was thick, wreathing each man so that he could not believe that there was anything outside the soft envelope about him. And the chanting filled the whole world, as if all time and space trembled and writhed with the rise and fall of words none of them could understand.

As slowly as it had come the smoke mist ebbed, reluctantly withdrawing its folds, returning once again to the braziers from which it had issued. And the aromatic scent which had been a part of it left Simon lightheaded, more than a little divorced from reality. Then he felt the chill air on his skin, looked down at a body strange to him, a heavier body with the slight beginning of a paunch, a feathering of red-gold hair growing on its skin. He was Fulk.

Koris—or at least the man who moved from Koris’ starpoint—was shorter—they had selected their counterparts from men not too afar from their own physical characteristics; but he lacked the seneschal’s abnormal breadth of shoulder, his long dangling arms. An old sword slash lifted his upper lip in a wolfish snarl, enough to show a toothprint white and sharp. Ingvald had lost his comparative youth and had fingers of gray in his hair, a seamed face marked by many years of evil and reckless living.

They dressed in clothing from the castle chests, slipped on rings, neck chains, and buckled tight the weapons of dead men.

“Lord!” One of the men hailed Simon. “Behind you—it fell from Fulk’s sword belt. There.”

His pointing finger indicated the gleam of metal.

Simon picked up a boss. The metal was neither gold nor silver, but had a greenish cast and it was formed in the pattern of an interwoven knot of many twists and turns. Simon searched along the belt and found the hooks where it once must have been fastened, snapped it back into place. There must be no change in Fulk’s appearance, even by so small an item.

The witch was returning her braziers to the chest. She looked up as he came to her, studying him narrowly, as an artist might critically regard a finished work.

“I wish you well, March Warder,” she told him. “The Power be with you in full measure.”

“For those good wishings we thank you, lady. It is in my mind that we shall need all such in this venture.”

She nodded. Koris called from the door. “The tide changes, Simon, it is time we sail.”

5 RED MORNING

“SIGNAL FLAGS!” One of the knot of men at the prow of the coaster, now being worked by sweeps up the golden river in the early morning, nodded to the flutter of colored strips from a pole on the bank beside the first wharf of Kars.

He who wore a surcoat gaudily emblazoned with a fish, horns on snout and sloping, scaled head against a crimson square, stirred, his hand going to his belt.

“Expected?” He made an important question of that one word.

His companion smiled. “For what we seem, yes. But that is as it should be. It remains to be seen now whether Yvian is ready to welcome his father-in-law per ax with kindness or the sword. We walk into the serpent’s open mouth, and that can snap shut before our reinforcements arrive.”

There was a low laugh from the third member of the party. “Any serpent closing his jaws upon us, Ingvald, is like to get several feet of good steel rammed up through its backbone! There is this about blank shields—they are loyal to the man who pays them, but remove that man and they are willing to see reason. Let us deal with Yvian and we shall speedily have Kars thus!” He held out a brown hand, palm up and slowly curled fingers inward to form a fist.

Simon-Fulk was wary of Koris’ impetuous estimate of the odds. He did not underrate either the seneschal’s fighting ability nor his leadership, but he did question this feverish drive which kept the other at the prow of the coaster all the way up river, staring ahead as if his will could add to their speed. Their crew were Sulcarmen who, as merchants, had made this run before and knew every trick of inducing speed, all of which they had brought into action since they had entered the river’s mouth.

In the meantime, the main force of the Estcarpian invaders were coming down through the foothills, ready to dash for Kars when the signal came and that signal . . . Simon-Fulk, for the dozenth time since they had boarded the coaster, glanced at the tall basket cage now draped in a loose cover. In it was the Falconer’s addition to their party. Not one of the black-and-white hawks which served the tough mountain fighters as scouting eyes and ears and battle comrades—trained not only to report, but also to fly at the enemy in attack, but a bird which could not be so easily recognized as belonging to Estcarp’s allies.

Larger than those hawks which rode at Falconer saddle bows, its plumage was blue-gray, lightening to white on the head and tail. Five such had been discovered overseas by Falconers serving as marines on Sulcar ships.

And these had been bred and trained now for three generations. Too heavy to serve as did the regular hawks, they were used as messengers, since they had a homing instinct, and the ability to defend themselves in the air.

For Simon-Fulk’s purpose this bird was excellent. He did not dare take one of the regular hawks into Kars, since only Falconers used those birds. But this new breed because of its beauty would catch the attention, and it had been trained to hunt, so that Yvian would welcome it as a gift.

Ten men, a bird and a whole city against them. This was a wild and foolish expedition on the face of it. Yet once before four of them had invaded this same Kars and had come out with their lives and more. Four of them! Simon’s hand slipped back and forth along the ornaments on Fulk’s belt. Three of them now—himself, Koris and somewhere, hidden in those buildings, Loyse. But the fourth? Do not think of her now. Wonder why she had not returned, why she had allowed him to hear secondhand from the witch at Verlaine that her mission had failed. Where was she—nursing that hurt? But she had accepted the cost of marriage between them, had come to him first! Why—

“We have welcomers, Lord!” Ingvald drew Simon’s attention to the here and now.

A file of men at arms, surcoated alike with the badge of Yvian—a mailed fist holding aloft an ax—were on the wharf. Simon’s fingers closed on his dart gun, the edge of his cloak discreetly veiling that movement. But on a barked order from their officer the waiting squad clapped their bared hands together and then raised them for an instant, palm out and shoulder high, the greeting of a friendly salute. Thus they were welcomed to Kars.

There was another turn out of barehanded, saluting troops at the citadel gate. And, as far as they had been able to judge on their march through the city, life in Kars flowed smoothly, no sign of unease.

But when they had been ushered with the formality of court etiquette into the suite of chambers in the mid-bulk of the citadel, Simon beckoned Ingvald and Koris to a bowed window. The seven they had brought with them from Verlaine remained by the door. Simon indicated them.

“Why here?”

Koris was frowning. “Yes, why?”

“Bottle us all up together,” Ingvald suggested. “And if such handling gives us warning, they apparently do not care. Also—where is Yvian, or at least his constable? We were escorted by a sergeant-at-arms, no one of higher rank. We may be in guests’ quarters, but they skimp badly on the courtesy.”


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