Witch World-1

Witch World

by Andre Norton

 

PART I: VENTURE OF SULCARKEEP

 

I

SIEGE PERILOUS

 

The rain was a slantwise curtain across the dingy street, washing soot from city walls, the taste of it metallic on the lips of the tall, thin man who walked with a loping stride close to the buildings, watching the mouths of doorways, the gaps of alleys with a narrow‑eyed intentness.

Simon Tregarth had left the railroad station two – or was it three hours ago? He had no reason to mark the passing of time any longer. It had ceased to have any meaning, and he had no destination. As the hunted, the runner, the hider – no, he was not in hiding. He walked in the open, alert, ready, his shoulders as straight, his head as erect as ever.

In those first frantic days when he had retained a wisp of hope, when he had used every scrap of animal cunning, every trick and dodge he had learned, when he had twisted and back‑trailed, and befogged his tracks, then he had been governed by hours and minutes, he had run. Now he walked, and he would continue to walk until the death lurking in one of those doorways, in ambush in some alley would confront him. And even then he would go down using his fangs. His right hand, thrust deep into the soggy pocket of his top coat, caressed those fangs – smooth, sleek, deadly, a weapon which fitted as neatly into his palm as if it were a part of his finely trained body.

Tawdry red‑and‑yellow neon lights made wavering patterns across the water‑slick pavement; his acquaintance with this town was centered about a hotel or two located at its center section, a handful of restaurants, some stores, all a casual traveler learned in two visits half a dozen years apart. And he was driven by the urge to remain in the open, for he was convinced that the end to the chase would come that night or early tomorrow.

Simon realized that he was tiring. No sleep, the need for constant sentry‑go. He slackened pace before a lighted doorway, read the legend on the rain‑limp awning above it. A doorman swung open the inner portal and the man in the rain accepted the tacit invitation, stepping into warmth and the fragrance of food.

The bad weather must have discouraged patrons. Maybe that was why the headwaiter welcomed him so quickly. Or perhaps the cut of the still presentable suit protected from the damp by the coat he shed, his faint but unmistakable natural arrogance – the mark left upon a man who has commanded his kind and been readily obeyed – insured for him the well‑placed table and the speedily attentive waiter.

Simon grinned wryly as his eye sped down the lines of the menu, and there was a ghost of true humor in that grin. The condemned man would eat a hearty meal anyway. His reflection, distorted by the curving side of the polished sugarbowl, smiled back at him. A long face, fine‑drawn, with lines at the corners of the eyes, and deeper set brackets at the lips, a brown face, well‑weathered, but in its way an ageless face. It had looked much the same at twenty‑five, it would continue to look so at sixty.

 

Tregarth ate slowly, savoring each bite, letting the comforting warmth of the room, of the carefully chosen wine, relax his body if not mind and nerves. But that relaxation nurtured no false courage. This was the end, he knew it – had come to accept it.

“Pardon…”

The fork he had raised with its thick bite of steak impaled did not pause before his lips. But in spite of Simon’s iron control a muscle twitched in his lower eyelid. He chewed, and then he answered, his voice even.

“Yes?”

The man standing politely at his table might be a broker, a corporation lawyer, a doctor. He had a professional air designed to inspire confidence in his fellows. But he was not what Simon had expected at all, he was too respectable, too polite and correct to be – death! Though the organization had many servants in widely separated fields.

“Colonel Simon Tregarth, I believe?”

Simon broke a muffin apart and buttered it. “Simon Tregarth, but not ‘Colonel’,” he corrected, and then added with a counterthrust on his own, “As you well know.”

The other seemed a little surprised, and then he smiled, that smooth, soothing, professional smile.

“How maladroit of me, Tregarth. But let me say at once – I am not a member of the organization. I am, instead – if you wish it, of course – a friend of yours. Permit me to introduce myself. I am Dr. Jorge Petronius. Very much at your service, may I add.”

Simon blinked. He had thought the scrap of future remaining to him well accounted for, but he had not reckoned on this meeting. For the first time in bitter days he felt, far inside him, the stir of something remotely akin to hope.

It did not occur to him to doubt the identification offered by this small man watching him narrowly now through the curiously thick lenses, supported by such heavy and broad black plastic frames that Petronius appeared to wear the half‑mask of eighteenth century disguise. Dr. Jorge Petronius was very well known throughout that half‑world where Tregarth had lived for several violent years. If you were “hot” and you were also lucky enough to be in funds you went to Petronius. Those who did were never found thereafter, either by the law, or the vengeance of their fellows.

“Sammy is in town,” that precise, slightly accented voice continued.

Simon sipped appreciatively at his wine. “Sammy?” he matched the other’s detachment. “I am flattered.”

“Oh, you have something of a reputation, Tregarth. For you the organization unleashed their best hounds. But after the efficient way you dealt with Kotchev and Lampson, there remained only Sammy. However, he is slightly different metal from the others. And you have, if you will forgive my prying into your personal affairs, been on the run for some time. A situation which does not exactly strengthen the sword arm.”

Simon laughed. He was enjoying this, the good food and drink, even the sly needling of Dr. Jorge Petronius. But he did not lower his guard.

“So, my sword arm needs strengthening? Well, doctor, what do you suggest as the remedy?”

“There is my own.”

Simon put down his wine glass. A red drop trickled down its side to be absorbed by the cloth.

“I have been told your services come high, Petronius.”

The small man shrugged. “Naturally. But in return I can promise complete escape. Those who trust me receive the worth of their dollars. I have had no complaints.”

“Unfortunately I am not one who can afford your services.”

“Your recent activities having so eaten into your cash reserve? But, of course. However, you left San Pedro with twenty thousand. You could not have completely exhausted such a sum in this short interval. And if you meet Sammy what remains shall only be returned to Hanson.”

Simon’s lips tightened. For an instant he looked as dangerous as he was, as Sammy would see him if they had a fair, face‑to‑face meeting.

“Why hunt me up – and how?” he asked.

“Why?” Again Petronius shrugged. “That you shall understand later. I am, in my way, a scientist, an explorer, an experimenter. As for how I knew you were in town and in need of my service – Tregarth, you should be aware by now how rumor spreads. You are a marked man and a dangerous one. Your coming and going is noted. It is a pity for your sake that you are honest.”

Simon’s right hand balled into a fist. “After my activities of the past seven years you apply that label to me?”

It was Petronius who laughed now, a small chuckle, inviting the other to enjoy the humor of the situation.

“But honesty sometimes has very little to do with the pronouncements of the law, Tregarth. If you had not been an essentially honest man – as well as one with ideals – you would never have stood up to Hanson. It is because you are what you are that I know you are ripe for me. Shall we go?”

Somehow Simon found himself paying his check, following Dr. Jorge Petronius. A car waited at the curb, but the doctor did not address its driver as the machine carried them into the night and the rain.

“Simon Tregarth,” Petronius’ voice was as impersonal now as if he recited data important only to himself. “Of Cornish descent. Enlisted in the U.S. Army on March tenth, 1939. Promoted on the field from sergeant to lieutenant, and climbed to rank of Lieutenant‑Colonel. Served in the occupation forces until stripped of his commission and imprisoned for – For what, Colonel? Ah, yes, for flagrant black market dealing. Only, most unfortunately the brave colonel did not know he had been drawn into a criminal deal until too late. That was the point, was it not, Tregarth, which put you on the other side of the law? Since you had been given the name you thought you might as well play the game.

“Since Berlin you have been busy in quite a few dubious exploits, until you were unwise enough to cross Hanson. Another affair into which you were pushed unknowingly? You seem to be an unlucky man, Tregarth. Let us hope that your fortunes change tonight.”

“Where are we going – to the docks?” Again he heard that rich chuckle. “We head downtown, but not to the harbor. My clients travel, but not by sea, air, or land. How much do you know of the traditions of your fatherland. Colonel?”

“ Matacham, Pennsylvania has no traditions I ever heard of–”

“I am not concerned with a crude mining town on this continent. I am speaking of Cornwall, which is older than time – our time.”

“My grandparents were Cornish. But I don’t know any more than that.”

“Your family was of the pure blood, and Cornwall is old, so very old. It is associated with Wales in legends. Arthur was known there, and the Romans of Britain huddled within its borders when the axes of the Saxons swept them to limbo. Before the Romans there were others, many, many others, some of them bearing with them scraps of strange knowledge. You are going to make me very happy, Tregarth.” There was a pause as if inviting comment; when Simon did not answer, the other continued.

“I am about to introduce you to one of your native traditions, Colonel. A most interesting experiment. Ah, here we are!”

The car had stopped before the mouth of a dark alley.

Petronius opened the door.

“You now behold the single drawback of my establishment, Tregarth. This lane is too narrow to accommodate the car; we must walk.”

For a moment Simon stared up the black mouth, wondering if the doctor had brought him to some appointed slaughterhouse. Did Sammy wait here? But Petronius had snapped on a torch and was waving its beam ahead in invitation.

“Only a yard or two, I assure you. Just follow me.”

The alley was indeed a short one and they came out into an empty space between towering buildings. Squatting in a hollow ringed about by these giants was a small house.

“You see here an anachronism, Tregarth.” The doctor set a key in the door lock. “This is a late seventeenth century farmhouse in the heart of a twentieth century city. Because its title is in doubt, it exists, a very substantial ghost of the past to haunt the present. Enter please.”

 

Later, as he steamed in front of an open fire, a mixture his host had pressed upon him in his hand, Simon thought that Petronius’ description of a ghost house was very apt. It needed only a steeple crowned hat for the doctor’s head, a sword at his side, to complete the illusion that he had stepped from one era into another.

“Where do I go from here?” he asked.

Petronius prodded the fire with a poker. “You shall go at dawn, Colonel, free and clear, as I promise. As to where,” he smiled, “that we shall see.”

“Why wait until dawn?”

As if being forced into telling more than he wished, Petronius put down the poker and wiped his hands on a handkerchief before he faced his client squarely.

“Because only at dawn does your door open – the proper one for you. This is a story at which you may scoff, Tregarth, until you see the proof before your eyes. What do you know of menhirs?”

Simon felt absurdly pleased that he could supply an answer the other obviously did not expect.

“They were stones – set in circles by prehistoric men – Stonehenge.”

“Set up in circles, sometimes. But they had other uses also.” Petronius was all unsuppressed eagerness now, begging for serious attention from his listener.

“There were certain stones of great power mentioned in the old legends. The Lia Fail of the Tuatha De Danann of Ireland. When the rightful king trod upon it, it shouted aloud in his honor. It was the coronation stone of that race, one of their three great treasures. And do not the kings of England to this day still cherish the Stone of Scone beneath their throne?

“But in Cornwall there was another stone of power – the Siege Perilous. It was one rumored to be able to judge a man, determine his worth, and then deliver him to his fate. Arthur was supposed to have discovered its power through the Seer Merlin and incorporated it among the seats of the Round Table. Six of his knights tried it – and disappeared. Then came two who knew its secret and stayed: Percival and Galahad.”

“Look here.” Simon was bitterly disappointed, the more so because he had almost dared to hope again. Petronius was cracked, there was no escape after all.

“Arthur and the Round Table – that’s a fairy tale for kids. You’re talking as if–”

“As if it were true history?” Petronius caught him up. “Ah, but who is to say what is history and what is not? Every word of the past which comes to us is colored and influenced by the learning, the prejudices, even the physical condition of the historian who has recorded it for later generations. Tradition fathers history and what is tradition but word of mouth? How distorted may such accounts become in a single generation? You, yourself, had your entire life changed by perjured testimony. Yet that testimony has been inserted in records, has now become history, untrue as it is. How can anyone say that this story is legend but that one a fact, and know that he is correct? History is made, is recorded by human beings, and it is larded with all the errors our species is subject to. There are scraps of truth in legend and many lies in accepted history. I know – for the Siege Perilous does exist!

“There are also theories of history alien to the conventional ones we learn as children. Have you ever heard of the alternate worlds which may stem from momentous decisions? In one of those worlds, Colonel Tregarth, perhaps you did not turn aside your eyes on that night in Berlin. In another you did not meet with me an hour ago, but went on to keep your rendezvous with Sammy!”

The doctor rocked back and forth on his heels, as if set teetering by the force of his words and belief. And in spite of himself Simon caught a bit of that fiery enthusiasm.

“Which of these theories do you intend to apply to my problem?”

Petronius laughed, once again at ease. “Just have the patience to hear me out without believing that you are listening to a madman, and I shall explain.” He glanced from the watch on his wrist to the wall clock behind him. “We have some hours yet. So, it is like this–”

As the little man began mouthing what sounded like wild nonsense, Simon obediently listened. The warmth, the drink, the chance to rest were payment enough. He might have to leave to face Sammy later, but that chance he pushed to the back of his mind as he concentrated on what Petronius was saying.

The mellow chime of the ancient clock struck the hour three times before the doctor was done. Tregarth sighed, perhaps he had only been battered into submission by that flood of words, but if it were true – And there was Petronius’ reputation. Simon unbuttoned his shirt and drew out his money belt.

“I know that Sacarsi and Wolverstein haven’t been heard of since they contacted you,” he conceded.

“No, for they went through their doors; they found – the worlds they had always unconsciously sought. It is as I have told you. One takes his seat upon the Siege and before him opens that existence in which his spirit, his mind – his soul if you wish to call it that – is at home. And he goes forth to seek his fortune there.”

“Why haven’t you tried it yourself?” That was to Simon the weak point in the other’s story. If Petronius possessed the key to such a door, why had he not used it himself?

“Why?” The doctor stared down at the two plump hands resting on his knees. “Because there is no return – and only a desperate man chooses an irrevocable future. In this world we always cling to the belief that we can control our lives, make our own decisions. But through there, we have made a choice which cannot be cancelled. I use words, many words, but at this moment I cannot seem to choose them rightly to express what I feel. There have been many Guardians of the Siege – only a few of them have used it for themselves. Perhaps… some day…but as yet I have not the courage.”

“So you sell your services to the hunted? Well, that is one way of making a living. A list of your clients might make interesting reading.”

“Correct! I have had some very famous men apply for assistance. Especially at the close of the war. You might not believe the identity of some who sought me out then, after fortune’s wheel spun against them.”

Simon nodded. “There were’some notable gaps in the war criminal captures,” he remarked. “And some odd worlds your stone must have opened if your tale is true.” He arose and stretched. Then went to the table and counted out the money he took from his belt. Old bills, most of them, dirty, with a greasy film as if the business they had been used for had translated some of its slime to their creased surfaces. There remained in his hand a single coin. Simon spun it in the air and let it ring down on the polished wood. The engraved eagle lay up. He looked at it for a moment and then picked it up again.

“This I take.”

“A luck piece?” The doctor was busy with the bills, stacking them into a tidy pile. “By all means retain it then; a man can never have too much luck. And now, I dislike speeding the parting guest, but the power of the Siege is limited. And the proper moment is all‑important. This way, please.”

He might have been ushering one into a dentist’s office, or to a board meeting, Simon thought. And perhaps he was a fool to follow.

The rain had stopped, but it was still dark in the square box of yard behind the old house. Petronius pushed a switch and a light fanned out from the back door. Three gray stones formed an arch which topped Simon’s head by a few scant inches. And before that lay a fourth stone, as unpolished, unshaped and angular as the others. Beyond that arch was a wooden fence, high, unpainted, rotted with age, grimed with city dirt, and a foot or two of sour slum soil, nothing else.

Simon stood for a long moment, inwardly sneering at his half‑belief of a few moments earlier. Now was the time for Sammy to appear and Petronius to earn his real fee.

But the doctor had taken his stand to one side of the clock on the ground. He indicated it with a forefinger.

“The Siege Perilous. If you will just take your seat there, Colonel – it is almost time.”

A grin, without humor, to underline his own folly, twisted Simon’s thin‑lipped mouth, as he straddled the stone and then stood for an instant partly under that arch before he sat down. There was a rounded depression to fit his hips. Curiously, with a sense of foreboding, he put out his hands. Yes, there were two other, smaller hollows to hold his palms, as Petronius had promised.

Nothing happened. The wooden fence, the strip of musty earth remained. He was about to stand up when–

“Now!” Petronius’ voice fluted in a word which was half call.

There was a swirling within the stone arch, a melting.

Simon looked out across a stretch of moorland which lay under a gray dawn sky. A fresh wind laden with a strange, invigorating scent fingered his hair. Something within him straightened like a leashed hound to trace that wind to its source, run across that moorland.

“Your world, Colonel, and I wish you the best of it!”

He nodded absently, no longer interested in the little man who called to him. This might be an illusion, but it drew him as nothing else ever had in his life. Without a word of farewell Simon arose and strode beneath the arch.

There was an instant of extreme panic – such fear as he had never imagined could exist, worse than any physical pain – as if the universe had been wrenched brutally apart and he had been spilled out into an awful nothingness. Then he sprawled face down on thick wiry turf.

 

II

MOOR HUNT

 

The dawn light did not mean sun to come, for there was a thick mist filling the air. Simon got to his feet and glanced back over his shoulder. Two rough pillars of reddish rock stood there, between them no city yard but a stretch of the same gray‑green moor running on and on into a wall of fog. Petronius had been right: this was no world he knew.

He was shivering. Though he had brought his top coat with him, he did not have his hat, and the moisture plastered his hair to his skull, trickled from scalp to neck and cheek. He needed shelter – some goal. Slowly Simon made a complete turn. No building showed within the rim of the horizon. With a shrug he chose to walk straight away from the rock pillars; one direction was as good as another.

As he plodded across the soggy turf the sky grew lighter, the mist lifted, and the character of the land changed slowly. There were more outcrops of the red stone, the rolling ground held more sharp rises and descents. Before him, how many miles away he could not judge, a broken line cut the sky, suggesting heights to come. And the meal he had treated himself to was many hours in the past. He twisted a leaf from a bush, chewed it absently, finding the flavor pungent but not unpleasant. Then he heard the noise of the hunt.

A horn called in a series of ascending notes, to be answered by a yapping and a single muffled shout. Simon began to trot. When he came out on the lip of a ravine he was certain that the clamor came from the other side of that cut, and was heading in his direction. With the caution of past commando training, he went to earth between two boulders.

The woman was the first to break from the cover of the scrub brush on the opposite bank. She sprinted, her long legs holding to the steady, dogged pace of one who has had a long chase behind, an even more distant goal ahead. At the edge of the narrow valley she hesitated to look back.

Against the grayish‑green of the vegetation her slim ivory body, hardly concealed by the tatters which were her only covering, seemed to be spotlighted by the wan light of the dawn. With an impatient gesture she pushed back strands of her long black hair, ran her hands across her face. Then she began to work her way along the crest of the slope, hunting for a path down.

The horn pealed and the yapping answered it. She started convulsively and Simon half arose out of his hiding place as he suddenly realized that in that grim hunt she must be the quarry.

He dropped to one knee again as she jerked one other rags free from a thorn bush. The force of that impatient tug sent her skidding over the rim. Even then she did not scream, but her hands grabbed for a bush as she went forward, and its branches held. As she struggled for footing the hounds burst into view.

They were thin, white animals, their lanky bodies turning with almost boneless fluidity as they came to the edge of the valley wall. With sharp noses pointed down at the woman, they gave triumphant tongue in wailing howls.

The woman writhed, flinging out her legs in a frenzied fight to reach some toehold on a narrow ledge to her right, a ledge which might afford her a path to the valley floor. Perhaps she might have made it had the hunters not arrived.

They were on horseback, and he who wore the horn cord over his shoulder remained in the saddle, while his companion dismounted and walked briskly to look over, kicking and slapping the hounds from his path. When he saw the woman his hand went to a holster at his belt.

Seeing him in turn the woman stopped her vain efforts to reach the ledge, hanging from her bush, her blank face, impassive, up to his. He grinned as he unsheathed his weapon, obviously savoring the helplessness of his prey.

Then the slug from Simon’s gun caught him dead center. With a scream he tottered forward and fell into the gully.

Before echo of shot and scream had died away, the other huntsman took cover, which told Simon a little of the caliber of those he faced. And the hounds went mad, racing wildly up and down, filling the air with their yapping.

But the woman made a last effort and found foothold on the ledge. She sped down that path to the floor of the gully, taking cover among the rocks and brush which choked it. Simon saw a flash in the air. Point deep in the earth, not two inches away from where he had crouched to make his shot, a small dart quivered back and forth and then stood still. The other hunter had given battle.

Ten years ago Simon had played such games almost daily, relished them. And, he discovered, some actions once learned by muscles and body are not quickly forgotten. He wriggled into denser cover to wait. The hounds were tiring, several had flung themselves down, to lie panting. It was now a matter of patience, and Simon had that in abundance. He saw that tremor of vegetation and fired for the second time – to be answered by a cry.

A few moments later, alerted by a crackling of brush, he crept to the edge of the valley, and so came face to face with the woman. Those dark eyes, set at a provocative slant in her triangular face, searched his with a keen intentness Simon found a little disconcerting. Then, as his hand closed about her shoulder to draw her into deeper cover, he gained a sharp impression of danger, of a desperate need to keep moving across the moor. There was only safety beyond the edge of the moor, back in the direction from which he had come.

So strong was that warning that Simon found himself crawling back among the rocks before getting to his feet and running, matching his stride to hers, the yammering of the hounds growing fainter behind them.

Although she must have already been running for weary miles, his companion held to a pace which he had to stretch to match. At last they came to a place where the moor began to give way to boggy ponds edged with waist‑high weeds. It was then that a down wind brought them again the faint call of a horn. And at that echo the woman laughed, glancing at Simon as if to ask him to share some jest. She indicated the bog patches with a gesture which suggested that here lay their safety.

About a quarter of a mile before them a mist curled and curdled, thickening, spreading to cut across their path, and Simon studied it. In such a curtain they might be safe, but also they might be lost. And, oddly enough, that mist appeared to rise from a single source.

The woman raised her right arm. From a broad metal band about her wrist shot a flash of light, aimed at the mist. She waved with her other hand for him to be still, and Simon squinted into that curtain, almost certain he saw dark shapes moving about there.

A shout, the words of the cry incomprehensible, but the tone of challenge unmistakable, came from ahead.

His companion answered that with a lilting sentence or two. But when the reply came she staggered. Then she drew herself together and looked to Simon, putting out her hand in half‑appeal. He caught it, enfolding it in his own warm fist, guessing they must have been refused aid.

“What now?” he asked. She might not be able to understand the words but he was certain she knew their meaning.

Delicately she licked a finger tip and held it into that wind rising to whip her hair back from a face on which a purple bruise swelled at jawline and dark shadows deepened the hollows beneath her high cheekbones. Then, still hand in hand with Simon, she pulled to the left; wading out into evil‑smelling pools where green scum was broken by their passing and clung in slimy patches to her legs and his sodden slacks.

So they made their way about the edge of the bog, and that fog which sealed its interior traveled on a parallel course with them, walling them out. Simon’s hunger was a gnawing ache, his soaked shoes rubbed blisters on his feet. But the sounds of the horn were lost. Perhaps their present path had baffled the hounds.

His guide fought her way through a reed thicket and brought them out on a ridge of higher ground where there was a road of sorts, hardened by usage, but no wider than a footpath. With it to follow they made better time.

 

It must have been late afternoon, though in that gray neutral light hours could not be marked, when the road began to climb. Ahead were the escarpments of the red rock, rising almost as a crudely constructed wall, pierced by a gap which cradled the road.

They were almost to this barrier when their luck failed. Out of the grass beside the trail burst a small dark animal to run between the woman’s feet, throwing her off balance, sprawling on the beaten clay. She uttered her first sound, a cry of pain, and caught at her right ankle. Simon hastened to push her hands aside and used knowledge learned on the battlefield to assess the damage. Not a break, but under his manipulation she caught her breath sharply, and it was plain she could not go on. Then, once more, came the call of the horn.

“This tears it!” Simon said to himself rather than to the woman. He ran ahead to the gap. The trace of road wound on to a river in a plain, with no cover. Save for the rock pinnacles which guarded the pass, there was no other break in the flat surface of the ground for miles. He turned to the escarpment and examined it with attention. Dropping his coat, he kicked off his soggy shoes and tested handholds. Seconds later he reached a ledge which could be seen from road level only as a shadow. But its width promised shelter and it would have to do for their stand.

When Simon descended the woman came creeping toward him on her hands and knees. With his strength and determination added to hers they gained that shallow refuge, crouching so closely together in that pocket of wind‑worn rock that he could feel the warmth of her hurried breath on his cheek as he turned his head to watch their back trail.

Simon also became aware of her trembling, half‑clothed body as shudders shook her from head to foot when the wind licked at them. Clumsily he wrapped his coat, damp as it was, about her and saw her smile, though the natural curve of her lips was distorted by a torn lip marked by a recent blow. She was not beautiful, he decided; she was far too thin, too pale, too worn. In fact, though her body was frankly revealed by the disarray of her rags, he was conscious of no male interest at all. And as that thought crossed his mind Simon was also aware that she did in some way understand his appraisal and that it amused her.

She hitched forward to the edge of the hollow so that they were shoulder to shoulder, and now she pulled back the sleeve of his coat, resting her wrist, with its wide bracelet, on her knee. From time to time she rubbed her fingers across an oval crystal set in that band.

Through the keening of the wind they could hear the horn, the reply of the hounds. Simon drew his automatic. His companion’s fingers flashed from the bracelet to touch the weapon briefly, as if by that she could divine the nature of the arm. Then she nodded as those white dots which were hounds came from the trees down the road. Four riders followed and Simon studied them.

The open method of their approach argued that they did not expect trouble. Perhaps they did not yet know the fate of their two comrades by the ravine; they might believe that they still trailed one fugitive instead of two. He hoped that that was the truth.

Metal helmets with ragged crests covered their heads and curious eye‑pieces were snapped down to mask the upper halves of their faces. They wore garments which seemed to be both shirt and jacket laced from waist to throat. The belts about their waists were a good twenty inches wide and supported bolstered sidearms, as well as sheathed knives, and various pouches and accouterments he could not identify. Their breeches were tight‑fitting and their boots arose in high peaks on the outside of the leg. The whole effect was a uniform one, for all were cut alike of a blue‑green stuff, and a common symbol was on the right breast of the shirt jackets.

The lean, snake‑headed hounds swirled up the road and dashed to the foot of the rock, some standing on hindlegs to paw at the surface below the ledge. Simon, remembering that silent dart, shot first.

With a cough the leader of the hunters reeled and slipped from his saddle, his boot wedging in the stirrups so that the racing horse jerked a limp body along the road. There was a shout as Simon snapped a second shot. A man caught at his arm as he took to cover, while the horse, still dragging the dead man, bore through the gap and down into the river plain.

The hounds ceased to cry. Panting, they flung themselves down at the foot of the pinnacle, their eyes like sparks of yellow fire. Simon studied them with a growing discomfort. He knew war dogs, had seen them used as camp guards. These were large beasts and they were killers, that was to be read in their stance as they watched and waited. He could pick them off one by one, but he dared not waste his ammunition.

Although the day had been so lowering, he knew that night would be worse with its full darkness, and it was coming fast. The wind sweeping wetly from the bogs was searching out their shelter with its chill.

Simon moved and one of the hounds jumped to alert, putting its forepaws on the rock and lifting a moaning howl of threat. Firm fingers closed about Simon’s upper arm, drawing him back, to his former position. Again through touch he received a message. As hopeless as their case appeared, the woman was not daunted. He gathered that she was waiting for something.

Could they hope to climb to the top of the escarpment? In the dusk he caught the shake of her unkempt head as if she had read that thought.

Once again the hounds were quiet, lying at the foot of the crag, their attention for the prey above. Somewhere – Simon strained to see through the dusk – somewhere their masters must be on the move, planning to close in about the fugitives. He knew his skill as a marksman, but conditions were now rapidly changing to the others’ favor.

He nursed the automatic tensely, alert to the slightest sound. The woman stirred with a bitten‑off exclamation, a gasp of breath. He did not need the urgent tug at his arm to make him look at her.

In the dusky quarter light a shadow moved up the end of the ledge. And she snatched his gun, gaining it by surprise, to bring down its butt with a vicious deadliness upon that creeping thing.

There was a thin squeal cut sharply in the middle. Simon grabbed the weapon and only when it was back safely in his grasp, did he look at that broken backed, squirming creature. Needle teeth, white and curved in a flat head, a narrow head mounted on a furred body, red eyes alive with something which startled him – intelligence in an animal’s skull! It was dying, but still it wriggled to reach the woman, a faint hissing trilling between those fangs, malignant purpose in every line of its broken body.

With squeamish distaste Simon lashed out with his foot, catching the thing on its side, sending it over to plop among the hounds.

He saw them scatter, separate and draw back as if he had tossed a live grenade into the gathering. Above their complaint he heard a more heartening sound, the laughter of the woman beside him. And he saw her eyes were alight with triumph. She nodded and laughed again as he leaned forward to survey that pool of shadow which now lapped about the base of the pinnacle, concealing the body of the thing.

Had it been another form of hunter loosed upon them by the hidden men below? Yet the uneasiness, the swift departure of the dogs that now milled yards away, seemed to argue otherwise. If they coursed with the dead creature it was not by choice. Accepting this as just another of the mysteries he had walked into – of his own free will – Simon prepared for a night on sentry‑go. If the silent attack of the small animal had been some move on the part of the besiegers, they might now come into the open to follow it up.

But, as the darkness thickened, there were no more sounds from below which Simon could interpret as attack. Again the hounds lay down in a half circle about the foot of the pinnacle, dimly visible because of their white hides. Once more, Tregarth thought of climbing to the top of the outcrop – they might even cross it if the woman’s lameness abated.

When it was almost totally dark she moved. Her fingers rested for a moment on his wrist and then slipped down to lay cool in his palm. Through his own watchfulness, through his listening for any sound, a picture formed in his mind. Knife – she wanted a knife! He loosened her hold and took out his pen knife, to have it snatched from him eagerly.

What followed Simon did not understand, but he had sense enough not to interfere. The cloudy crystal strapped to her wrist gave off a faint graveside radiance. By that he watched the point of the knife stab into the ball of her thumb. A drop of blood gathered on the skin, was rubbed across the crystal, so for a moment the thick liquid obscured the scrap of light.

Then up from that oval shone a brighter glow, a shaft of flame. Again his companion laughed, the low chuckle of satisfaction. Within seconds the crystal was dim once again. She laid her hand across his gun and he read in that gesture another message. The weapon was no longer necessary, aid would come.

The swampland wind with its puffs of rottenness moaned around and between the tongues of rock. She was shivering again and he put his arm about her hunched shoulders drawing her to him so that the warmth of their bodies could be joined. Along the arch of the sky flashed a jagged sword of purple lightning.

 

III

SIMON TAKES SERVICE

 

Another vivid bolt of lightning rent the sky, just above the pinnacle. And that was the opening shot of such a wild battle of sky, earth, wind and storm as Simon had never seen before. He had crawled over battlefields under the lash of manmade terrors of war, but this was worse somehow – perhaps because he knew that there was no control over those flashes, gusts, blasts.

The rock shook and pitched under them as they clung as frightened little animals to each other, closing their eyes to the shock of each strike. There was a continuous roar of sound, not the normal rumble of thunder, but the throb of a giant drum beaten to a rhythm which sang angrily in one’s blood and set the brain to spinning dizzily. The woman’s face was pressed tight against him and Simon enfolded her shaking body as he would the last promise of safety in a reeling world.

It went on and on, beat, crash, lick of light, beat, wind – but as yet no rain. A tremor in the rock under them began to echo the thud of the thunderblasts.

A final spectacular blast left Simon both deaf and blind for a space. But as the seconds lengthened into minutes and there was nothing more, when even the wind appeared to have exhausted itself, sinking into small, fitful puffs, he raised his head.

The stench of burned animal matter poisoned the air.

A wavering glow not too far away marked a brush fire.

But the blessed quiet held and the woman stirred in his arms, pushing free. Once again he had an impression of confidence, a confidence mixed with triumph, some game had come to a victorious end and to the woman’s satisfaction.

He longed for a light with which to survey the scene below. Had the hunter or hounds survived the storm? Orange‑red light lapped out from the fire toward the escarpment. Against the foot of the pinnacle lay a tangle of stiff white bodies. There was a dead horse in the road, a man’s arm resting on its neck.

The woman pushed forward, searching with eager eyes. Then, before Simon could stop her, she had swung over the ledge and he followed, alert for attack, but seeing only the bodies in the firelight.

Warmth of flame reached them and it was good. His companion held out both arms to the glow. Simon skirted the dead hounds, scorched and twisted by the bolt which had killed them. He came to the dead horse with the idea of taking its rider’s weapons. Then he saw the fingers in the animal’s coarse mane move.

The hunter must be mortally injured, and certainly Simon had little feeling for him since that harrying chase across the moor and bog. But neither could he leave a helpless man so trapped. He struggled with the weight of the dead mount, got that broken body free where the light of the fire could show him who and what he had rescued.

Those strained, bloodstained, harshly marked features held no sign of life, yet the broken chest rose and fell laboriously and he moaned now and then. Simon could not have named his race. The close‑cropped hair was very fair, silver‑white almost. He had a boldly hooked nose between wide cheek bones, an odd combination. And Simon guessed that he was young, though there was little of the unformed boy in that drawn face.

Still on its cord about his shoulder was a dented horn. And the rich ornamentation of his habit, the gem‑set brooch at his throat, suggested that he was no common soldier. Simon, unable to do anything for those extensive hurts, turned his attention to the wide belt and its arms.

The knife he tucked into his own belt. The strange sidearm he took from its holster to examine carefully. It had a barrel, and something which could only be a trigger. But in his hand the balance felt wrong, the grip awkwardly shaped. He pushed it inside his shirt.

He was about to loosen the next item, a narrow cylinder, when a white hand flashed across his shoulder and took it.

The hunter stirred as if that touch, rather than Simon’s handling, had reached his dazed brain. His eyes opened, feral eyes, with a gleam of light within their depths such as a beast’s holds in the darkness. And there was that in those eyes which made Simon recoil.

He had met men who were dangerous, men who wanted his death and who would go about the business of securing it with a businesslike dispatch. He had stood face to face with men in whom some trait of character worked upon him until he hated them on sight. But never before had he seen any such emotion as lay at the back of those shining green eyes in the battered face of the hunter.

But Simon realized that those eyes were not turned upon him. The woman stood there, a little crookedly for she favored her injured ankle, turning over in her hands the rod she had stripped from the hunter’s belt.

Almost Simon expected to see in her expression some answer to that burning, corrosive rage with which the wounded man faced her.

She was watching the hunter steadily, without any sign of emotion. The man’s mouth worked, twisted. He raised his head with a tortured, visible effort which racked his whole body and spat at her. Then his head cracked back against the roadway and he lay still as if that last gesture of detestation had drained all his reserves of energy. And in the light of the now dying fire his face went queerly slack, his mouth fell open. Simon did not need to note the end of that laboring rise and fall of the crushed chest to know that he was dead.

“Alizon–” The woman shaped the word carefully, looking to Simon and then to the body. Stopping she indicated the emblem on the dead man’s jacket. “Alizon.”

“Alizon,” Simon echoed as he got to his feet, having no desire to plunder farther.

Now she swung to face the gap through which the road ran on into the river plain.

“Estcarp–” Once more that careful pronouncement of a name, but her finger indicated the river plain. “Estcarp.” She repeated that, but now touched her own breast.

And, as if by that name she had evoked an answer, there was a shrilling pipe from the other side of the gap. No demanding call such as the hunter’s horns had given, but rather a whistling such as a man might make between his teeth as he waited for action. The woman replied with a shouted sentence which was taken up by the wind, echoed from the sides of the rock barrier.

Simon heard the thud of hooves, the jangle of metal against metal. But since his companion faced the gap welcomingly, he was content to wait before going into action. Only his hand closed about the automatic in his pocket and its blunt muzzle pointed to that space between the pinnacles.

They came one at a time, those horsemen. Skimming between the peaks, the first two fanning out, weapons ready. When they sighted the woman they called eagerly; plainly they were friends. The fourth man rode straight ahead to where Simon and the woman waited. His mount was tall, heavy through the barrel as if the animal had been selected to carry weight. But the figure in the high peaked saddle was so short of stature Simon thought him a young boy – until he swung to earth.

In the light of the fire his body glistened, and points of glitter sparkled on helm, belt, throat and wrist. Short he was, but his breadth of shoulder made that lack of height the more apparent, for his arms and chest were those intended for a man a third again his size. He wore armor of some sort with the apparent texture of chain‑mail, yet it clothed him so snugly that it might have been wrought of cloth, yielding to every movement of his limbs with the pliability of woven stuff. His helmet was crested with the representation of a bird, wings outstretched. Or was it a real bird charmed to unnatural immobility? For the eyes which glinted in its upheld head appeared to watch Simon with a sullen ferocity. The smooth metal cap on which it perched ended in a kind of scarf of the mail, looped about the wearer’s neck and throat. He tugged at this impatiently as he walked forward, freeing his face from its half veiling. And Simon saw that he had not been so wrong in his first guess after all. The hawk‑helmed warrior was young.

Young, yes, but also tough. His attention was divided between the woman and Simon, and he asked her a question as he surveyed Tregarth measuringly. She answered with a rush of words, her hand sketching some sign in the air between Simon and the warrior. Seeing that, the newcomer touched his helm in what was clearly a salute to the outlander. But it was the womap who commanded the situation.

Pointing to the warrior she continued her language lesson: “Koris.”

It could be nothing but a personal name Simon decided quickly. He jerked his thumb at his own chest:

“Tregarth, Simon Tregarth.” He waited for her to name herself.

But she only repeated what he had said. “Tregarth, Simon Tregarth,” as if to set the syllables deep in her mind. When she did not answer otherwise he made his own demand.

“Who?” he pointed straight at her.

The warrior Koris started, his hand going to the sidearm at his belt. And the woman frowned, before her expression became so remote and cold that Simon knew he had blundered badly.

“Sorry,” he spread his hands in gesture which he hoped she would take for apology. In some way he had offended, but it was through ignorance. And the woman must have understood that, for she made some explanation to the young officer, though he did not look at Simon with any great friendliness during the hours which followed.

Koris, showing a deference which did not match the woman’s ragged clothing, but did accord with her air of command, mounted her behind him on the big black horse. Simon rode behind one of the other guardsmen, linking his fingers in the rider’s belt and clinging tight, as they headed back into the river plain at a pace which even the dark of the night did not keep from approaching a gallop.

 

A long time later Simon lay still in a nest of bed coverings and stared with unseeing eyes up at the curve of the carved wood canopy overhead. Save for those wide open eyes he might have been deemed as suddenly asleep as he had been minutes earlier. But an old talent for passing from sleep into instant alertness had not been lost with his entrance into this new world. And now he was busy sorting out impressions, classifying knowledge, trying to add one fact to another to piece together a concrete picture of what lay about him beyond the confines of the massive bed, the stone walls of the room.

Estcarp was more than the river plain; it was a series of forts, stubborn defensive holds along a road marking a frontier. Forts where they had changed horses, had fed, and then swept on again, driven by some need for haste Simon had not understood. And at last it was a city of round towers, green‑gray as the soil in which they were rooted under the pale sun of a new day, towers to guard, a wall to encircle, and then other buildings of a tall, proud‑walking race with dark eyes and hair as black as his own, a race with the carriage of rulers and an odd weight of years upon them.

But by the time they had entered that Estcarp Simon had been so bemused by fatigue, so dulled by the demands of his own aching body, that there were only snatches of pictures to be remembered. And overlaying them all the sensation of age, of a past so ancient that the towers and the walls could have been part of the mountain bones of this world. He had walked old cities in Europe, seen roadways which had known the tramp of Roman legions. Yet the alien aura of age resting here was far more overpowering, and Simon fought against it when he marshalled his facts.

He was quartered in the middle pile of the city, a massive stone structure which had both the solemnity of a temple and the safety‑promise of a fort. He could just barely remember the squat officer, Koris, bringing him to this room, pointing to the bed. And then – nothing.

Or was it nothing?

Simon’s brows drew together in a faint frown. Koris, this room, the bed – Yet now as he stared up into the mingled pattern of intricate carving arching over him, he found things there which were familiar, oddly familiar, as if the symbols woven back and forth had a meaning which he would unravel at any moment now.

Estcarp – old, old, a country and a city, and a way of life! Simon tensed. How had he known that? Yet it was true, as real as the bed on which his saddle‑sore body rested, as the carvings over him. The woman who had been hunted – she was of this race, of Estcarp – just as the dead hunter by the barrier had been of another and hostile people.

The Guardsmen in the frontier posts were all of the same mold, tall, dark, aloof in manner. Only Koris, with his misshapen body, had differed from the men he led. Yet Koris’ orders were obeyed; only the woman who rode behind him had appeared to have more authority.

Simon blinked, his hands moved beneath the covers, and he sat up, his eyes on the curtains to his left. Soft as it had been, he had caught that whisper of footfall, and he was not surprised when the rings of the curtains clicked, and the thick blue fabric parted, so that he looked at the very man who had been in his thoughts.

Freed of his armor Koris was even more of a physical oddity. His too‑wide shoulders, those dangling, over‑long arms overweighed the rest of him. He was not tall and his narrow waist, his slender legs were doubly small in contrast to the upper part of his body. But set on those shoulders was the head of the man Koris might have been had nature not played such a cruel trick. Under a thick cap of wheat‑yellow hair was the face of a boy who had only recently come to manhood, but also the face of one who had had no pleasure in that development. Strikingly handsome, apart from those shoulders, jarring with them, the head of a hero partnered to the body of an ape!

Simon slid his legs down the mound of the high bed and stood up, sorry at that moment that he must force the other to look up to him. But Koris had moved back with the quickness of a cat and perched on a broad stone ledge running beneath a slit window, so that his eyes were still on a level with Tregarth’s. He gestured with a grace foreign to his long arm to a nearby chest, indicating a pile of clothing there.

Those were not the tweeds he had crawled out of before seeking bed, Simon noted. But he also saw something else, a subtle reassurance of his present status there. His automatic, the other contents of his pocket, had been laid out with scrupulous neatness to one side of that new clothing. He was no prisoner, whatever other standing he might have in that hold.

He pulled on breeches of soft leather, resembling those Koris now wore. Supple as a glove, they were colored a dark blue. And with them were a pair of calf‑high boots of a silvery‑gray substance he thought might be reptile hide. Having dressed so far he turned to the other and made gestures of washing.

For the first time a ghost of smile touched the Guardsman’s well‑cut mouth and he pointed to an alcove. Medieval the hold of Estcarp might be superficially, Simon discovered, but the dwellers therein had some modem views on sanitation. He found himself introduced to water which flowed, warm, from a wall pipe when a simple lever was turned, to a jar of cream, faintly fragrant, which applied and then wiped off erased all itch of beard. And with his discoveries came a language lesson, until he had a growing vocabulary of words Koris patiently repeated until Simon had them right.

The officer’s attitude was one of studied neutrality. He neither made friendly overtures, save for his language instructions, nor accepted Simon’s attempts at more personal conversation. In fact, as Tregarth pulled on a garment intended to serve as both shirt and jacket, Koris shifted halfway around on the window ledge to stare out into the day sky.

Simon weighed the automatic in his hand. The Estcarpian officer appeared to be indifferent as to whether this stranger went armed or not. At length Tregarth slipped it into his belt above his lean and now empty middle, and signed that he was ready to go.

The room gave on a corridor and that, within a few paces, upon a stair down. Simon’s impression of immeasurable age was confirmed by the hollows worn in those same stone steps, a groove running along the left wall where fingers must have passed for eons. Light came palely from globes set far above their heads in metal baskets, but the nature of that light remained a mystery.

A wider hall lay at the foot and men passed there. Some in the scaled mail were guards on duty, others had the easier dress Simon now wore. They saluted Koris and eyed his companion with a somber curiosity he found vaguely disconcerting, but none of them spoke. Koris touched Tregarth’s arm, motioned to a curtained doorway, holding back a loop of the cloth in a way which suggested an order.

Beyond stretched another hall. But here the bare stone of the walls were covered with hangings bearing the patterns of the same symbols he had seen on the bed canopy, half familiar, half alien. A sentry stood to attention at the far end of that way, raising the hilt of his sword to his lips. Koris looped back a second curtain, but this time he waved Simon by him.

The room seemed larger than it was because of the vault of the ceiling which pointed up far overhead. Here the light globes were stronger, and their beams, while not reaching into those lofty shadows, did show clearly the gathering below.

There were two women awaiting him – the first he had seen within the pile of the keep. But he had to look a second time to recognize in the one standing, her right hand on the back of a tall chair which held her companion, the woman who had fled before the hunters of Alizon. That hair which had hung in lank soaked strings about her then was coiled rather severely into a silver net, and she was covered primly from throat to ankle by a robe of a similar misty color. Her only ornament was an oval of the same cloudy crystal such as she had worn then in a wrist band, but this hung from a chain so that the stone rested between the small mounds of her breasts.

“Simon Tregarth!” It was the seated woman who summoned him, so his eyes passed to her, and he found that he could not take them away again.

She had the same triangular face, the same seeking eyes, the same black coils of netted hair. But the power which emanated from her was like a blow. He could not have told her age, in some ways she might have seen the first stones ofEstcarp laid one upon another. But to him she seemed ageless. Her hand flashed up and she tossed a ball toward him, a ball seemingly of the same cloudy crystal as the gem she and her lieutenant wore as jewels.

Simon caught it. Against his flesh it was not cold as he had expected, but warm. And as he instinctively cupped it in both hands, her own closed over her jewel, a gesture echoed by her companion.

Tregarth could never afterwards explain, even to himself, what followed. In some weird fashion he pictured in his mind the series of actions which had brought him to the world ofEstcarp, sensing as he did so that those two silent women saw what he had seen and in a measure shared his emotions. When he had done that a current of information flowed in his direction.

He stood in the main fortress of a threatened, perhaps a doomed land. The age‑old land of Estcarp was menaced from the north and from the south, and also from the sea to the west. Only because they were the heirs of age‑old knowledge were the dark people of her fields, her towns and cities, able to hold back the press. Theirs might be a losing cause, but they would go down fighting to the last blow of sword from the last living Guardsman, the last blasting weapon man or woman could lay hand upon.

And that same hunger which had drawn Simon under the rough arch in Petronius’ yard into this land, was alive and avid in him once more. They made no appeal to him, their pride was unbending. But he gave his allegiance to the woman who had questioned him, chose sides in that moment with a rush of a boy’s openhearted enthusiasm. Without a spoken word passing between them, Simon took service in Estcarp.

 


                                       

                                         При цитуванні і використанні матеріалів посилання на сайт обов'язкове.