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Andre Norton - Web of the Witch World

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Web of the Witch World
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“There is more wrong than insult for Fulk in this.” Simon pulled off the dead man’s ornate helm and leaned his head against the wall where a breeze ruffled the heavy forelock of red-gold hair which he had borne from the shape-changing. “To pen us together is a security move. And Yvian has no reason to honor Fulk. But here there is more—” He closed his eyes, tried to make that mysterious sixth sense deliver other than just the warning which had been growing stronger every step he took into the enemy’s hold.

“A sending—there is a sending?” Koris demanded.

Simon opened his eyes. Once a sending had brought him into Kars, a dull pain in his head which marched him, hot, cold, hot, down streets and alleyways to Jaelithe’s lodging. No, what he was feeling now was not the same as that. This—it drew him forward, yes—but that was not all. He tingled with a kind of anticipation, such as one felt on the verge of taking some irrevocable step. But also it was not altogether concerned with him. Rather as if he now moved on the edge of some action; brushed by it, but not the true focus point.

“No sending,” he made belated answer. “There is something here on the move . . .”

Koris shifted the ax on which he leaned. Volt’s gift was never far from his hand. But for his entrance into Kars it had been disguised with leaf foil and paint into the ornament weapon of a lord’s constable.

“The ax grows alive,” he commented. “Volt—” His voice sank to a whisper which could not reach beyond the window bay. “Volt guide us!”

“We are in the main block,” he added more briskly, and Simon knew that Koris was reviewing mentally the plan of Kars’ citadel as they had learned it from reports. “Yvian’s private chambers are in the north tower. The upper corridor should have no more than a pair of guards at its far end.” He moved towards the door of their own suite.

“How so?” Ingvald looked to Simon. “Do we wait or move now?”

They had planned to wait, but this compulsion Simon could sense . . . Perhaps the bold move was the right one.

“Waldis!” One of the men in Verlaine livery looked up alertly. “We have need for a sack of the bird’s grain; it was forgotten in the ship—you seek to send a messenger for it.”

Simon pulled aside the covering of the hawk’s basket. Those bright eyes, not golden as was usual in that breed, but dark, regarded him intently, having in them a measure of intelligence—not human kind—but yet intelligence. He had never given the bird more than passing heed before, but now he watched it closely as he put hand to the fastening of its prison.

The feathered head turned, away from him, to the door of the room, as if the white one also listened, or strove to hear what could not be picked up by any ear. Then the curved beak opened and the bird uttered a piercing scream at the same moment Simon caught it too—that troubling of the very air about them.

Koris stared at Volt’s gift. The shallow disguise of foil could not hide the gleam of the ax head, not brilliant as from sunlight on the burnished metal, but as if the weapon had, for an instant, held fire in its substance.

And as suddenly that flash was gone.

The wide, white wings of the hawk fluttered and for the second time the bird screamed. Simon unlatched the cage door, held out his wrist and arm as a bridge. The weight of the bird was a burden, it could never have been carried so, but he held steady as it emerged. Then it fluttered over to perch on the back of a chair.

One of the Borderers held back the door and Waldis came in. He was breathing in great panting gasps and his sword was in his hand, the point of it dripping red.

“They have gone mad!” he burst out. “They are hunting men through the halls, cutting them down—” It could not be Estcarp forces; they had not yet flown their signal! Nothing to do with them—unless something had gone widely wrong. Ingvald caught the boy’s shoulder, drew him closer to Simon.

“Who hunts? Who fights?” he demanded harshly.

“I do not know. All of them by their badges are the duke’s men. I heard one shout to get the duke—that he was with his new wife—”

Koris’ breath hissed. “I think it is time to move.” He was already at the door. Simon looked to the bird mantling on the chair back.

“Open the window casement,” he ordered the nearest Borderer. He was being rushed, but that turmoil inside him was a sense of time running out. And if there was already trouble within the citadel they had best make use of that. He motioned and the hawk took off, out through the window, setting a straight course for those waiting. Then Simon turned and ran after Koris.

There was a dead man lying face up at the end of the hallway—his face gone loose and blank. And he wore no mail, but the tunic of some official by its richness, the small badge of Yvian’s service on one shoulder. Ingvald paused by the body long enough to point out a small rod of office, broken in two as if the dead man had used it in a futile attempt to ward off the blow which had cut him down.

“Steward,” the Borderer officer commented. But Simon had noted something else, the inset belt about the other’s loose over-robe. Three rosettes, each set with a small wink of red gem in their heart. But where the fourth should have been to complete a balanced pattern was another ornament, a twined and twisted knot, the same as on the belt taken from Fulk, which he, Simon, now wore. Some new trick of fashion or—?

But Koris was already well up the stairs leading to the next floor, the path which would take them to Yvian’s apartments and Loyse—if they were lucky. This was no time to speculate about belt ornaments.

They could hear uproar now, distant shouting, the clash of arms. Clearly an all-out struggle of some kind was in progress.

A shout from above, demanding. Then the thud of hollow sounding blows. Simon and Koris burst almost together from the stairwell to see men trying to force the door at the far end of the corridor. Two swung a bench as a battering ram, while others of their fellows stood, weapons in hand, waiting for the splintering barrier to give.

“Yaaaah—” No real war cry, but a shattering scream of rage, out of Koris, as if all the impatience and frustration in him was boiling free. With a feline leap he was halfway along the hall. Two of the Karstenians heard him, turned to face this new attack. Simon shot and both went down, one after the other, the darts finding marks. He was never good in cut-and-thrust melee, having come too late to the learning of sword play, and the niceties of ax attack were not for him. But there were few among either the Guard of Estcarp or the Borderers who could equal his marksmanship with a dart gun.

“Yaaaaah!” Koris overleaped the first body, fenced the other toppling man with a shoulder. Now Volt’s gift was doing bloody work with those at the battering ram.

Taking no heed for his back, Koris brought the ax down upon the door, and then sprawled forward as whatever bar had held it gave way. The swirl of Borderers had overtaken the remaining Karstenians, passed on after a moment of tight fast work, leaving only dead and dying behind.

Koris was already across the room, now snatching at a hanging to uncover a second and narrower stair. He seemed so sure of his objective that Simon followed without question. Another hall above and, halfway down it, a patch of yellow. Koris grabbed at that, and the folds of a travel cloak billowed out. He tossed it from him as he turned to face the only closed door.

There was no bar here. The first peck of the ax sent it crashing open and they looked into a bed chamber where the bed stood denuded of curtains, its coverings ripped and torn, sliding to the floor in an ominously stained muddle. The man whose fingers were still tightly clawed into those coverlets lay face down. But his legs moved feebly as they watched, striving perhaps to lift him again. Koris stalked forward and put hand to the hunched shoulder, rolled him over.

Simon had never seen Yvian of Karsten, but now he did not mistake the harsh jut of chin, the sandy brows which were a bushy bar across the nose. The sleekness of soft living had not altogether wiped away the forceful mercenary who had fought battles to become my lord duke.

He wore only a loose over-robe which had fallen apart at Koris’ handling so that the powerful body, seamed with old scars, was bare, save for a wide, wet, red band at his middle His breath came in great sobbing gulps, and with every moment of his arching chest, that band grew wider.

Koris kneeled beside the duke, so that he could look into Yvian’s face, meet his eyes.

“Where is she?” It was asked with no outer heat, merely a determination to be answered. But Simon doubted if any words could now reach Yvian.

“Where—is—she?” Koris repeated. Under his hand the ax moved, catching light from the window, reflecting it into Yvian’s face.

It seemed to Simon that the dying man’s attention was not for his questioner, but rather centered on that uncanny weapon, long since fashioned by a non-human smith. Yvian’s lips moved, shaped a word, and then a second audible enough—

“Volt—” He made an effort which was visible, looking from the ax to him who held it. And there was a kind of puzzlement in his eyes. Koris must have guessed the source of that for he leaned the closer to speak.

“Volt’s ax—and I am he who bears it—Koris of Gorm!”

But Yvian’s only answer was a ghostly grin, a stretch of lips which matched the slash of his death wound. He struggled to speak a moment later.

“Gorm, is it? Then you will know your masters. I wish them well—hell-cat—”

One hand freed its hold on the covers and he struck up, his closed fist merely touching Koris’ jaw before it fell limply back, that last effort having carried him over the final border into the waiting dark.

Save for Yvian they found these chambers bare, nor were the other two entrances unbarred. Koris, who had led that whirlwind search, came back wide-eyed.

“She was here!”

Simon agreed to that, but Yvian’s dying words were in his mind. Why had the duke spoke of “your masters” and connected that with Gorm? For Estcarp he would more rightly have said, “your mistresses.” All Karsten knew that the council of witches ruled the north. But Gorm had had grim masters—the Kolder! Someone had started the fighting here, and it had not been Estcarp work. Loyse was gone; Yvian given his death wound.

But they had little time to search farther. A band of the duke’s guards came seeking their commander and the Borderers needs must fight their way to make a stand elsewhere.

It was late night and Estcarp was indeed in Kars, when Simon slumped in a chair and chewed at a strip of meat, trying to listen to reports, to assess what had been done here.

“We cannot continue to hold Kars,” Guttorm of the Falconers slopped wine from a bottle into a cup, his hand shaking with fatigue. He had led the vans which had cut their way in from the north gate and he had been ten hours at the business of reaching where he now sat.

“We never intended to do so,” Simon swallowed his mouthful to answer. “What we came here to do—”

“Is not done!” The full thud was Koris’ ax punctuating his speech, haft butt against the floor. “She is not in the city, unless they have hidden her away so that even the witch can not sense her, and that I do not believe!”

Ingvald settled a slinged arm with a grimace of pain.

“Nor do I. But the witch says there is no trace. It is as if she never was—or now is—”

Simon stirred. “And there is one way of hiding which blanks out the power—”

“Kolder,” Koris replied evenly. Simon thought that he already had accepted that dour possibility.

“Kolder,” Simon agreed. “What have we learned from our prisoners—that suddenly, shortly after dawn yesterday, within the citadel some of the officers were given messages, all purporting to come from the duke, all definitely ordering them to quietly assemble the men under their command and then move in on each other! Each commander was told that one of his own fellows was the traitor. Could anything cause greater confusion? Then, unable to reach Yvian, even when they were beginning to realize their orders were wrong, the fighting became more intense as the rumor spread that Yvian had been killed by this one or that.”

“A cover, and none of our doing,” Guttorm stated, “it was only Yvian’s own force involved.”

“A cover,” Simon nodded. “And the only act which might be so covered was Yvian’s death. With his forces sadly split, too broken to organize a hunt for any murderer.”

“Maybe not just Yvian,” Koris broke in, “maybe also—Loyse!”

“But why?” Frankly that puzzled Simon. Unless—his tired mind moved slowly but it moved—unless Kolder wanted her for bait.

“I do not know, but I shall find out!” Once more the butt of Volt’s gift struck the floor with emphatic force.

6 DUCHESS OF KARSTEN

LOYSE SAT on the wide bed with her knees drawn up, her arms clasped around them, her eyes for that naked blade resting before her. What was Aldis’ purpose? It could not be that the duke’s mistress thought she would lose her power over Yvian. His need for Loyse was one of expediency only. And Aldis who had ruled him so long would not be easily unseated.

But—Loyse’s tongue tip ran along dry lips as she remembered. When Jaelithe had been a seeress in Kars months ago, Aldis had come to her secretly, to buy a spell to keep Yvian truly hers. And she must have believed in the necessity and efficiency of that or she would not have come. Then, in that later battle of wills —when the Guardians had used the most potent sendings they could conjure—Aldis (by image) had been the target of Jaelithe’s attack. By all the arts of Estcarp certain temporary commands had then been planted in her to use her influence upon Yvian to further the witches’ desires.

Now Loyse could not reconcile this present Aldis with the one she had so long thought upon. This Aldis would not have sought out Jaelithe, save for a contest of strengths. Had that been the real purpose of that visit to the witch of Estcarp? No! Jaelithe’s own power would have revealed to her any such plan behind Aldis’ seeking. She had then come honestly for her love potion.

And it was the truth that Aldis had been put under control for a period at the battle of wills before the taking of Gorm, even though that had been done from a distance and through images only. A failure there, too, Jaelithe would have known immediately.

Loyse gnawed on her lower lip and continued to stare at the dagger. She herself had failed in meeting with the duke’s leman—she had been too assured when she should have been simple and bewildered. Somehow she had been turned inside out, assessed, by opposition she must respect—or fear? Aldis was not Aldis as she had expected her to be. And now, Aldis was playing some game of her own, in which she considered Loyse to be a piece to be moved at her pleasure.

Patiently the girl fought down both hot anger and the tinge of fear which followed the facing of that fact. Ostensibly she had been brought out of Estcarp because she was Yvian’s wife by ax marriage. What did Yvian gain by her coming? First, what he had wanted from the beginning—Verlaine with its sea-brought treasure, its fortress, its lower harbor which, with the reef knowledge of its men, would give him a fine raiding port from which to prey on Estcarp.


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