Witch World-2

IV

THE CALL OUT OF SULCARKEEP

 

Simon raised heavy tankard to his lips. Over the rim of the vessel he watched the scene alertly. On his first acquaintance he had thought the people of Estcarp somber and overshadowed by a crushing weight of years, the last remnants of a dying race who had forgotten all but dreams of the past. But during the past weeks he had learned bit by bit how surface and superficial that judgment had been. Now in the mess of the Guards his attention flicked from face to face, reappraising, not for the first time, these men with whom he shared a daily round of duties and leisure.

To be sure their weapons were strange. He had had to learn the sword for use in close melee, but their dart guns were enough like his automatic to cause him little trouble. He could never match Koris as a warrior – his respect for that young man’s skill was unbounded. However Simon knew the tactics of other armies, other wars, well enough to make suggestions even that commander came to appreciate.

Simon had wondered how he would be received among the Guards – they were making a stand against high odds and to them any stranger might represent an enemy – a breach in the wall of defense. Only he had not reckoned with the ways of Estcarp. Alone in the nations of this continent, Estcarp was willing to welcome one coming with a story as wild as his own. Because the power of that ancient holding was founded upon – magic!

Tregarth rolled the wine about his tongue before he swallowed, considering objectively the matter of magic. That word could mean sleight‑of‑hand tricks, it could cover superstitious Mumbo‑Jumbo – or it could stand for something far more powerful. Will, imagination and faith were the weapons of magic as Estcarp used it. Of course, they had certain methods of focusing or intensifying that will, imagination, and faith. But the end result was that they were extremely open‑minded about things which could not be seen, felt, or given visible existence.

And the hatred and fear of their neighbors was founded upon just that basis – magic. To Alizon in the north, Karsten in the south, the power of the Witches of Estcarp was evil. “You shall not suffer a witch to live.” How many times had that been mouthed in his own world as a curse against innocent and guilty alike, and with far less cause.

For the matriarchate of Estcarp did have powers beyond any human explanation, and they used them ruthlessly when necessary. He had helped to bring a witch out of Alizon where she had ventured to be eyes and ears for her people.

A witch – Simon drank again. Not every woman of Estcarp had the Power. It was a talent which skipped willfully from family to family, generation to generation. Those who tested out as children were brought to the central city for their schooling and became dedicated to their order. Even their names were gone, for to give another one’s name was to give a part of one’s identity, so that thereafter the receiver had power over the giver. Simon could understand now the enormity of his request when he had asked the name of the woman in whose company he had fled over the moor.

Also the Power was not steady. To use it past a certain point wore hardly upon the witch. Nor could it always be summoned at will. Sometimes it was apt to fail at some crucial moment. So, in spite of her witches and her learnings, Estcarp had also her mail‑clad Guards, her lines of forts along her borders, her swords loose in many sheaths.

“Sa…” The stool beside him was jerked back from the table as a newcomer swung leg across to sit. “It is hot for the season.” A helm banged down on the board and a long arm swept out to reach the jug of wine.

The hawk on the discarded helm stared at Simon glassily, its beautifully wrought metallic plumage resembling true feathers. Koris drank while questions were shot at him from about the table, as men might aim darts for more deadly purpose. There was discipline in the forces of Estcarp but off duty there was no caste and the men about that board were avid for news. Their commander banged his tankard down with some force and answered briskly:

“You’ll hear the muster horn before the hour of gate closing, in my opinion. That was Magnis Osberic who prayed safe passage from the west road. And he had a tail in full war gear. It is to my mind that Gorm makes trouble.”

His words fell into a silence at the end. All of them, now including Simon, knew what Gorm meant to the Guards’ Captain. For rightfully the lordship of Gorm should have rested in Koris’ powerful hands. His personal tragedy had not begun there, but it had ended on that island when, wounded and alone, he had drifted from its shore, face down in a leaking fishing boat.

 

Hilder, Lord Defender of Gorm, had been storm‑stayed on those moors which were a no man’s land between Alizon and the plains of Estcarp. There, separated from his men, he had fallen from a floundered horse and broken an arm, to blunder on in a half daze of pain and fever into the lands of the Tormen, that strange race who held the bogs against all comers, allowing no encroachment upon their soggy domain by any race or man.

Why Hilder had not been slain or driven forth again remained ever a mystery. But his story was untold even after he returned to Gorm some months later, healed again of body and bearing with him a new‑made wife. And the men of Gorm – more straightly, the women of Gorm – would have none of that marriage, whispering that it had been forced upon their lord in return for his life. For the woman he had brought with him was misshapen of body, stranger yet of mind, being of the true blood of Tor. She bore him Koris in due time, and then she was gone. Perhaps she died, perhaps she fled again to her kin. Hilder must have known, but he never spoke of her again, and Gorm was so glad to be rid of such a liege lady that there were no questions asked.

Only Koris remained, with the head of a Gorm noble and the body of a bog loper, as he was never allowed to forget. And in time when Hilder took a second wife, Oma, the well‑dowered daughter of a far‑sailing sea master, Gorm again whispered and hoped. So they were only too willing to accept the second son Uryan, who, it was plain to see, had not a drop of suspect outland blood in the veins of his straight young body.

In time Hilder died. But he was a long time in dying and those who whispered had a chance to make ready against that day. Those who thought to use Oma and Uryan for their purposes were mistaken, for the Lady Oma, of trading stock and shrewd, was no easily befooled female of the inner courts. Uryan was still a child, and she would be his regent – though there were those who would say no to that unless she made a display of strength.

She was not a fool when she played one lord of Gorm against another, weakening each and keeping her own forces intact. But she was the worst befooled mortal in the world when she turned elsewhere for support. For it was Oma who brought black ruin to Gorm when she secretly summoned the fleet of Kolder to back her rule.

Kolder lay over the rim of the sea world, just where you could find only one man in ten thousand among the seafarers who could tell you. For honest men, or human men, kept aloof from that grim port and did not tie at its quays. It was accepted everywhere that those of Kolder were not as other men, and it was damnation to have any contact with them.

The death day of Hilder was followed by a night of red terror. And only one of Koris’ superhuman strength could have broken from the net cast for him. Then there was only death, for when the Kolder came to Gorm, Gorm ceased to be. If any now lived there who had known life under Hilder, they had no hope. For Kolder was now Gorm, yes, and more than just the island of Gorm, for within the year stark towers had risen in another place on the coast and a city called Yle had come into being. Though no man of Estcarp went to Yle – willingly.

This Yle lay like a spreading stain of foulness between Estcarp and their one strong ally to the west – the sea wanderers of Sulcarkeep. These fighter‑traders who knew wild places and different lands had built their stronghold by Estcarp favor on a finger of land which pointed into the sea, their road to encircle the world. Master Traders were the seamen of Sulcarkeep, but also they were fighting men who walked unchallenged in a thousand ports. No trooper of Alizon or shieldman of Karsten spoke to a Sulcarman except in a mild voice, and they were esteemed as swordbrothers by the Guardsmen of Estcarp.

“Magnis Osberic is not one to ride forth with the summoning arrow unless he must have already manned his walls,” remarked Tunston, senior under officer who kept the forces of Estcarp to the mark. He arose and stretched. “We’d best see to our gear. If Sulcarkeep cries aid, then we loosen swords.”

Koris gave only a preoccupied nod to that. He had dipped finger into his tankard and was drawing lines on the scrubbed board before him, chewing absentmindedly the while at a flat‑sized hunk of brown bread. Those lines made sense to Simon, looking over the other’s hunched shoulder, for they duplicated maps he had seen in the muster room of the city keep.

That finger which ended with Sulcarkeep on its tip formed one arm to encircle a wide bay, so that across the expanse of water the city of the traders faced – although many miles lay between them – Aliz, the main port of Alizon. In the confines of the bay itself was cupped the island of Gorm. And on that Koris carefully made the dot to signify Sippar, the main city.

Strangely enough Yle did not lie on the bayside section of the peninsula coast, but on the southwest portion of the shoreline, facing the open sea. Then there was a sweep of broken line southward, extending well into the Duchy of Karsten, all rock cliff with no safe anchorage for any ship. The bay of Gorm had been of old Estcarp’s best outlet to the western ocean.

The Guards’ Captain studied his work for a long instant or two and then with an impatient exclamation, rubbed his hand across it, smearing the lines.

“There is only one road to Sulcarkeep?” asked Simon. With Yle to the south and Gorm to the north, parties from each Kolder post could easily slice in two a peninsula road without greatly bestirring themselves.

Koris laughed. “There is one road, as old as the ages. Our ancestors did not foresee Kolder in Gorm – who in their sane minds could? To make safe that road,” he put his thumb on the dot he had made for Sippar and pressed it against the age‑hardened wood as if he were remorselessly crushing an insect, “we would have to do so here. You cure a disease by treating its source, not the fever, the wasting which are the signs of its residence in the body. And in this case,” he looked bleakly up at Tregarth, “we have no knowledge upon which to work.”

“A spy–”

Again the Guards’ officer laughed. “Twenty men have gone forth from Estcarp to Gorm. Men who suffered shape‑changing without knowing whether they would ever again look upon their own faces in a mirror, but suffering that gladly, men who were fortified with every spell the learning here could summon for their arming. And there has come back out of Sippar – nothing! For these Kolder are not as other men and we know nothing of their devices of detection, save that they appear to be infallible. At last the Guardian forbade any further such ventures, since the drain of Power was too great to have only failure always as an answer. I, myself, have tried to go, but they had set a boundary spell which I cannot break. To land on Gorm would mean my death, and I can serve Estcarp better alive. No, we shall not tear out this sore until Sippar falls, and not yet have we any hopes of bringing that about.”

“But if Sulcarkeep is threatened?”

Koris reached for his helm. “Then, friend Simon, we ride! For this is the strangeness of the Kolder: when they fight upon their own land or their own ships, the victory is always theirs. But when they assail clean territory where their shadow has not yet fallen, then there is still a chance to blood them, to swing swords which bite deep. And with the Sulcarmen the war ravens feed well. I would mark my Kolders when and while I can.”

“I ride with you.” That was a statement more than a question. Simon had been content to wait, to learn. He had set himself to school with the patience he had so painfully learned in the past seven years, knowing that until he mastered the skills which meant life or death here he could not hope for independence. And once or twice in the night watches he wondered whether the vaunted Power of Estcarp had not been used to bring about his acceptance of the status quo without question or rebellion. If so, that spell was wearing thin now; he was determined to see more of this world than just the city, and he knew that either he rode now with the Guard or he would go alone.

The Captain studied him. “We go for no quick foray.”

Simon remained seated, knowing the other’s dislike of being towered over and willing to propitiate him by that costless courtesy.

“When have I seemed to you one who expects only easy victories?” he got a caustic bite into that.

“See that you depend upon the darts then. As a swordsman you are still scarcely better than a stall keeper of Karsten!”

Simon did not fire at that jibe, knowing that it was only too true. As a marksman with the dart guns he could match the best in the hold and come off a shade the winner. Wrestling and unarmed combat, to which he brought the tricks of Judo, had given him a reputation with the men now reaching to the border forts. But in sword use he was still hardly better than the gawky recruits with only boy‑down to be scrubbed from their cheeks. And he swung a mace which Koris handled with cat‑ease as if it were a shoulder‑breaking burden.

“Dart gun it is,” he returned readily. “But still I ride.”

“So be it. But first we see whether or no any of us are to take the road.”

 

That was decided in the conclave into which the officers under Koris, the witches on duty in the hold, were summoned. Though Simon had no official standing in that company, he ventured to follow the Captain and was not refused entrance, taking his place on the ledge of one of the window embrasures to study the company with speculation.

The Guardian who ruled the keep and Estcarp beyond, the woman without a name who had questioned him on his first coming, presided. And behind her chair stood that witch who had fled before the hounds of Alizon. There were five more of the covenanted ones, ageless – in a way sexless – but all keen‑eyed and watchful. He would far rather fight with them behind him than standing in opposition, Simon decided. Never had he known any like them, or seen such power of personality.

Yet facing them now was a man who tended to dwarf his surroundings. In any other company he might well have dominated the scene. The men of Estcarp were lean and tall, but this was a bronze bull of a man beside whom they were boys not yet come to their full growth. The armor plate which hooped his chest could have furnished close to two shields for the Guard, his shoulders and arms were a match for Koris’ but the rest of his body was in keeping.

His chin was shaven, but on his broad upper lip a mustache bristled, stretching out across his weathered cheeks. And eyebrows furnished a second bar of hair on the upper part of his face. The helm on his head was surmounted with the skillfully modeled head of a bear, its muzzle wrinkled in a warning snarl. And a huge bearhide, tanned and lined with saffron yellow cloth, formed his cloak, gold‑clawed forepaws clasped together under his square chin.

“We of Sulcarkeep keep traders’ peace.” Manifestly he was trying to tutor his voice to a tone more in keeping with the small chamber, but it boomed through the room. “And we keep it with our blades, if the need arises. But against wizards of the night of what use is good steel? I do not quarrel with the old learning,” he addressed the Guardian directly, as if they faced each other across a trading counter. “To each man his own gods and powers, and never has Estcarp pushed upon others their own beliefs. But Kolder does not so. It laps out and its enemies are gone! I tell you, lady, our world dies, unless we rise to stem a tide together.”

“And have you, Master Trader,” asked the woman, “ever seen a man born of woman who can control the tides?”

“Control them, no, ride them, yes! That is my magic.” He thumped his corselet with a gesture which might have been theatrical, save that for him it was right. “But there is no riding with Kolder, and now they plan to strike at Sulcarkeep! Let the stupid wits of Alizon think to hold aloof, they shall be served in turn as Gorm was. But Sulcarmen man their walls – they fight! And when our port goes, those sea tides sweep close to you, lady. Rumor says that you have the magic of wind and storm, as well as those spells which twist a man’s shape and wits. Can your magic stand against Kolder?”

Her hands went to the jewel on her breast and she smoothed it.

“It is the truth I speak now, Magnis Osberic – I do not know. Kolder is unknown, we have not been able to breach its walls. For the rest – I agree. The time has come when we must take a stand. Captain,” she hailed Koris, “what is your thought upon the matter?”

His handsome face did not lose its bitter shadow, but his eyes were alight.

“I say that while we can use swords, then let us! With your permission, Estcarp will ride to Sulcarkeep.”

“The swords of Estcarp shall ride, if that is your decision, Captain, for yours is the way of arms and you speak accordingly. But also shall that other Power ride in company, so what force we have shall be given.”

She made no summoning gesture, but the witch who had spied in Alizon moved from behind the chair to stand upon the Guardian’s right hand. And her dark, slanted eyes moved over the company until they found Simon sitting apart. Had a shadow of a smile, gone in an instant, spread from her eyes to her lips? He could not have sworn to it, but he thought that was so. He did not understand why, but in that moment Simon was aware of a very fragile thread spun between them, and he did not know whether he chafed against the thinnest of bonds or not.

 

When they rode out of the city in the midafternoon Simon discovered by some chance his mount matched pace with hers. As the men of the Guard she wore mail, the scarfed helmet. There was no outward difference between her and the rest, for a sword hung at her hip, and the same sidearm at her belt as Simon carried.

“So, man of war from another world,” her voice was low and he thought it for his hearing alone, “we travel the same train once again.”

Something in her serene composure irked him. “Let us hope this time to hunt instead of being hunted.”

“To each his day,” she sounded indifferent. “I was betrayed in Alizon, and unarmed.”

“And now you ride with sword and gun.”

She glanced down at her own equipment and laughed. “Yes, Simon Tregarth, with sword and gun – and other things. But you are right in one thought, we hasten to a dark meeting.”

“Foretelling, lady?” His impatience ripened. For that moment he was an unbeliever. It was far easier to trust in steel which fitted into the hand than in hints, looks, feelings.

“Foretelling, Simon.” Her narrow eyes regarded him still with that shadow smile somewhere in their depths. “I am laying no geas, nor quest upon you, outland man. But this I know: our two strands of life stuff have been caught up together by the Hand of the Over Guardian. What we wish and what will come of it may be two very different things. This I shall say, not only to you, but to all this company – beware the place where rocks arch high and the scream of the sea eagle sounds!”

Simon forced an answering smile. “Believe me, lady, in this land I watch as if I had eyes set around my head in a circlet. This is not my first raiding party.”

“As has been known. Else you would not ride with the Hawk,” she pointed with a lift of her chin to Koris. “Were you not of the proper metal he would have none of you. Koris is a warrior bred, and a leader born – to Estcarp’s gain!”

“And you foresee this danger at Sulcarkeep?” he pressed.

She shook her head. “You have heard how it is with the Gift. Bits and patches are granted us – never the whole pattern. But there are no city walls in my mind picture. And I think it lies closer than the sea rim. Loose your dart gun, Simon, or bare those knowledgeable fists of yours.” She was amused again, but her laughter did not jeer – rather it was the open good humor of comradeship. He knew that he must accept her on her own proffered terms.

 

V

DEMON BATTLE

 

The troop from Estcarp pushed the pace but they had still a day’s journey before them when they rode out of the last of the frontier posts and headed along the curve of the seaport highway. They had changed mounts regularly at the series of Guard installations and spent the night at the last fort, keeping to a steady trot that ate up the miles.

Although the Sulcarmen did not ride with the same ease as the Guard, they clung grimly to saddles which seemed too small for their bulk – Magnis Osberic not being unique in his stature – and kept up, riding with the fixed purpose of men to whom time itself was a threatening enemy.

But the morning was bright, and patches of purple flowering bush caught radiance from the sun. The air carried the promise of salt waves ahead and Simon knew a lift of heart which he had thought lost long ago. He did not realize that he was humming until a familiar husky voice cut from his left.

“Birds sing before the hawk strikes.”

He met that mockery good‑naturedly. “I refuse to listen to the croaking of ill – it is too fine a day.”

She plucked at the mail scarf wreathing her shoulders and throat, as if its supple folds were a kind of imprisonment. “The sea – it is in the wind here–” Her gaze roamed ahead where the road rippled to the horizon. “We have a portion of the sea in our veins, we of Estcarp. That is why Sulcar blood can mingle with ours, as it has oftimes. Someday I would take to the sea as a venture. There is a pull in the very surge of the waves as they retreat from the shore.”

Her words were a singing murmur, but Simon was suddenly alert, the tune he had hummed dried in his throat. He might not have the gifts of the Estcarp witches, but deep within him something crawled, stirred into life, and before he reasoned it through, his hand flashed up in a signal from his own past as he reined in his horse.

“Yes!” Her hand was flung to echo his and the men behind them halted. Koris’ head whipped about: he made his own signal and the whole company came to a stop.

The Captain passed the lead momentarily toTunston and rode back. They had their flankers out; nothing could be charged to lack of vigilance.

“What is it?” Koris demanded.

“We are running into something.” Simon surveyed the terrain ahead, laying innocently open under the sun. Nothing moved except a bird spiralling high. The wind had died so that even its puffs did not disturb the patches of brush. Yet he would stake all his experience and judgment upon the fact that before them a trap was waiting to snap jaws.

Koris’ surprise was fleeting. He had already glanced from Simon to the witch. She sat forward in the saddle, her nostrils expanded as she breathed deeply. She might have been trying the scent as does a hound. Dropping the reins she moved her fingers in certain signs, and then she nodded sharply with complete conviction.

“He is right. There is a blank space ahead, one I can not penetrate. It may be a force barrier – or hide an attack.”

“But how did he – the gift is not his!” Koris’ protest was quick and harsh. He flashed a glance at Simon which the other could not read, but it was not of confidence. Then he issued orders, spurring forward himself to lead one of those circling sweeps which were intended to draw an overanxious enemy into the open.

Simon drew his dart gun. How had he known – how did he know they were advancing into danger? He had had traces of such foreknowledge in the past – as on the night he had met Petronius – but never had it been so sharp and clear, with a strength which increased as he rode.

The witch kept beside him, just behind the first line of Guards, and now she chanted. From inside her mail shirt she had brought out that clouded jewel which was both a weapon and the badge of her calling. Then she held it above her head at arm’s length and cried aloud some command which was not in the tongue Simon had painstakingly learned.

There came into view a natural formation of rocks pointing into the sky as fangs from some giant jawbone, and the road ran between two which met in the semblance of an arch. About the foot of the standing stones was a mass of brush, dead and brown, or living and green, to form a screen.

From the gem a spearpoint of light struck upon the tallest of those toothstones, and from that juncture of beam and rock spread a curling mist which thickened into a cottony fog, blanketing out the pillars and the vegetation.

Out of that clot of gray‑white stuff burst the attack, a wave of armed and armored men coming forward at a run in utter silence. Their helms were head‑enveloping and visored, giving them the unearthly look of beaked birds of prey. And the fact that they advanced without any calls or orders along their ranks added to the weirdness of the sudden sortie.

“Sul… Sul…Sul…!” The sea rovers had their swords out, and swung them in time to that thunderous shout as they drew into a line which sharpened into a wedge, Magnis Osberic forming its point.

The Guard raised no shout, nor did Koris issue any orders. But marksmen picked their men and shot, swordsmen rode ahead, their blades ready. And they had the advantage of being mounted, while the silent enemy ran afoot.

Simon had studied the body armor of Estcarp and knew where the weak points existed. Whether the same was true of Kolder armor he could not tell. But he aimed for the armpit of one man who was striking at the first Guard to reach the cresting wave of the enemy forces. The Kolder spun around and crashed, his pointed visor digging into the earth.

“Sul… Sul… Sul…!” The war shouts of the Sulcarmen were a surf roar as the two bands of fighters met, mingled, and swirled in a vicious hand to hand combat. In the first few moments of the melee Simon was aware of nothing but his own part in the affair, the necessity for finding a mark. And then he began to note the quality of the men they battled.

For the Kolder force made no attempt at self‑preservation. Man after man went blindly to his death because he did not turn from attack to defense in time.

There was no dodging, no raising of shields or blade to ward off blows. The foot soldiers fought with a dull ferocity, but it was almost mechanical. Clockwork toys, Simon thought, wound up and set marching.

Yet these were supposed to be the most formidable foemen known to this world! And now they were being cut down easily, as a child might push over a line of toy soldiers.

Simon lowered his gun. Something within him revolted against picking off the blind fighters. He spurred his mount to the right in time to see one of the beaked heads turn in his direction. The Kolder came forward at a brisk trot. But he did not engage Simon as the other had expected. Instead he leaped tigerishly at the rider just beyond – the witch.

Her mastery of her horse saved her from the full force of that dash and her sword swung down. But the blow was not clean, catching on the pointed visor of the Kolder and so being deflected over his shoulder.

Blind as he might be in some respects, the fellow was well schooled in blade work. The blue length of steel in his hand flashed in and out, in its passing sweeping aside the witch’s weapon, tearing it from her hand. Then he cast aside his own weapon and his mail‑backed glove grabbed for her belt, tearing her from the saddle in spite of her struggles, with an ease which Koris might have displayed.

Simon was on him now and that curious fault which was losing his comrades their battle possessed this Kolder as well. The witch was fighting so desperately in his hold that Simon dared not use his sword. He drew his foot from the stirrups as he urged his horse closer, and kicked out with all the force he could put behind that blow.

The toe of his boot met the back of the Kolder’s round helmet, and the impact of that meeting numbed Simon’s foot. The man lost his balance and sprawled forward, bearing the witch with him. Simon swung from the saddle, stumbling, with fear that his jarred leg would give under him. His groping hands slid over the Kolder’s plated shoulder, but he was able to pull the fellow away from the gasping woman and send him over on his back, where he lay beetle‑wise, his hands and legs still moving feebly, the blankness of his beaked visor pointing up.

Shedding her mailed gloves the woman knelt by the Kolder, busy with the buckles of his helm. Simon caught at her shoulder.

“Mount!” He ordered, drawing his own horse forward for her.

She shook her head, intent upon what she was doing.

The stubborn strap gave and she wrenched off the helm. Simon did not know what he had expected to see. His imagination, more vivid than he would admit, had conjured up several mental pictures of the hated aliens – but none of them matched this face.

“Herlwin!”

The hawk crown helmet of Koris cut between Simon and that face as the Captain of the Guard knelt beside the witch, his hands going out to the fallen man’s shoulders as if to draw him into the embrace of close friends.

Eyes as green‑blue as the Captain’s, in a face as regularly handsome, opened, but they did not focus either on the man who called, or the other two bending over him. It was the witch who loosened Koris’ grip. She cupped the man’s chin, holding still his rolling head, peering into those unseeing eyes. Then she loosed him and pulled away, wiping her hands vigorously on the coarse grass. Koris watched her.

“Herlwin?” It was more a question addressed to the witch than an appeal to the man in Kolder’s trappings.

“Kill!” She ordered between set teeth. Koris’ hand went out to the sword he had dropped on the grass.

“You can’t!” Simon protested. The fellow was harmless now, knocked partly unconscious by the blow. They could not just run him through in cold blood. The woman’s gaze crossed his, steel cold. Then she pointed to that head, rolling back and forth again.

“Look, outworld man!” She jerked him down beside her.

With an odd reluctance Simon did as she had done, took the man’s head between his hands. And on that moment of contact he nearly recoiled. There was no human warmth in that flesh; it did not have the chill of metal nor of stone, but of some unclean, flabby stuff, firm as it looked to the eye. When he stared down into those unblinking eyes, he sensed rather than saw a complete nothingness which could not be the result of any blow, no matter how hard or straightly delivered. What lay there was not anything he had ever chanced upon before – an insane man still has the cloak of humanity, a mutilated or mangled body could awaken pity to soften horror. Here was the negation of all which was right, a thing so loathsomely apart from the world that Simon could not believe it was meant to see sun or walk upon wholesome earth.

As the witch had done before him, he scrubbed his hands on the grass trying to rub from them the contamination he felt. He scrambled to his feet and turned his back as Koris swung the sword. Whatever the Captain struck was dead already long dead and damned.

There were only dead men to mark the Kolder force, and two slain Guardsmen, one Sulcar corpse being lashed across his horse. The attack had been so strikingly inept that Simon could only wonder why it had been made. He fell in step with the Captain and discovered that he was in search of knowledge.

“Unhelm them!” The order passed from one group of Guardsmen to the next. And beneath each of those beak helms they saw the same pale faces with heads of cropped blond hair, those features which argued they were akin to Koris.

“Midir!” he paused beside another body. A hand twitched, there was the rattle of death in the man’s throat.”Kill!” The Captain’s order was dispassionate, and it was obeyed with quick efficiency.

He looked upon every one of the fallen, and three more times he ordered the death stroke. A small muscle twitched at the comer of his well‑cut mouth, and what lay in his eyes was far from the nothingness which had been mirrored in the enemies’. The Captain, having made the rounds of the bodies, came back to Magnis and the Witch.

“They are all of Gorm!”

“They were of Gorm,” the woman corrected him. “Gorm died when it opened its sea gates to Kolder. Those who lie here are not the men you remember, Koris. They have not been men for a long time – a long, long time! They are hands and feet, fighting machines to serve their masters, but true life they did not have. When the Power drove them out of hiding they could only obey the one order they had been given – find and kill. Kolder can well use these things they have made to fight for them, to wear down our strength before they aim their greater blows.”

That lip twitch pulled the Captain’s mouth into something which curved but in no way resembled a smile.

“So in a measure do they betray a weakness of their own. Can it be that they lack manpower?” Then he corrected himself, slamming his sword back into its sheath with a small rasp of sound. “But who knows what lies in a Kolder mind – if they can do this, then perhaps they have other surprises.”

Simon was well in the van as they rode on from that trampled strip of field where they had met the forces of Kolder. He had not been able to aid in the final task the witch urged on them, nor did he like to think now of those bodies left headless. It was hard to accept what he knew to be true.

“Dead men do not fight!” He did not realize he had protested that aloud until Koris answered him.

“Herlwin was like one born in the sea. I have watched him hunt the spear fish with only a knife for his defense. Midir was a recruit in the bodyguard, still stumbling over his feet when the assembly trumpet blew on the day Kolder came to Gorm. Both of them I knew well. Yet those things which lie behind us, they were neither Herlwin nor Midir.”

“A man is three things.” It was the witch who spoke now. “He is a body to act, a mind to think, a spirit to feel. Or are men constructed differently in your world, Simon? I cannot think so, for you act, you think, and you feel! Kill the body and you free the spirit; kill the mind and ofttimes the body must live on in sorry bondage for a space, which is a thing to arouse man’s compassion. But kill the spirit and allow the body, and perhaps the mind to live–” her voice shook, “that is a sin beyond all comprehension of our kind. And that is what has happened to these men of Gorm. What walks in their guise is not meant for earthbom life to see! Only an unholy meddling with things utterly forbidden could produce such a death.”

“And you cry aloud the manner of our deaths, lady, should Kolder come into Sulcarkeep as it did to Gorm.” The Master Trader pushed his heavy‑boned mount up level with them.

“We have bested them here, but what if they muster legions of these half‑dead to assault our walls? There are only a few men within the keep, for this is the trading season and nine‑tenths of our ships are at sea. We needs must spread thinly in the fortress. A man may clip heads with a will, but his arm tires at the business. And if the enemy keeps coming they can overwhelm us by sheer weight of numbers. For they have no fear for themselves and will go forward where one of us might have a second thought, or a third!”

Neither Koris nor the witch had a ready answer for that. Only Simon’s first sight of the trading port, hours later, was in a manner reassuring. Seamen though the Sulcarmen might be by first choice, they were also builders, using every natural advantage of the point they had selected as an asset in the erection of the keep. From the land side it was mainly wall with watch towers and firing slits in plenty. And it was only when Magnis Osberic escorted them within that they saw the full strength of the place.

Two arms of rock curved out to the sea – a crab’s open claws – and between them was the harbor. But each of those claws had been reinforced with blocks of masonry, walls, watch points, miniature forts, connected to the main body with a maze of underground ways. Wherever possible the outer walls ran down straight to the pound of the waves, providing no possible hold for climbers.

“It would seem,” Simon commented, “that this Sulcarkeep was built with the thought of war in mind.”

Magnis Osberic laughed shortly. “Master Tregarth, the Peace of the Highways may hold for our blood within Estcarp, and to a measure within Alizon and Karsten – providing we clink gold in the hearing of the right ears. But elsewhere in the world we show swords along with our trade goods, and this is the heart of our kingdom. Down in those warehouses lies our life blood – for the goods that we barter is the flow of our life. To loot Sulcarkeep is the dream of every lordling and every pirate in this world!

“The Kolder may be the demon spawn rumor names them, but they do not disdain the good things of this earth. They would like to paddle their paws in our takings as well as the next. That is why we also have a last defense here – if Sulcarkeep falls her conquerors will not profit!” He brought his big fist down upon the parapet before them in a giant’s crushing blow. “Sulcarkeep was built in my great‑grandfather’s day to provide all our race with a safe port in time of storm – storm of war as well as storm of wind and wave. And it would seem that we now need it.”

“Three ships in the harbor,” Koris had been counting. “A cargo bottom and two armed runners.”

“The cargo is for Karsten in the dawning. Since it carries the Duke’s bargainings it can go under his flag and her crew need not stand to arms in the port faring,” remarked Osberic.

“ ’Tis tongued about that the Duke is to wed. But there is a necklet of Samian fashioning lying in a chest down there intended for the white neck of Aldis. It would appear that Yvian may put the bracelet on some other’s wrist, but he intends not to wear it on his own.”

The witch shrugged and Koris appeared far more interested in the ships than in any gossip concerning the neighboring court. “And the runners?” he prompted.

“Those remain for a space.” The Master Trader was evasive. “They shall patrol. I am better pleased to know what approaches from the sea.”

 

A bomber might reduce the outer shell of Sulcarkeep to rubble in a run or two; heavy artillery could breach its massive walls within hours, Simon decided, as he continued on the inspection round with Koris. But there were a warren of passages and chambers in the rock beneath the foundations of the buildings, some giving on the sea – those having barred doors; unless the Kolder had weapons beyond any arms he had seen in this world, the traders would appear to be unnecessarily nervous. One could think that, until one remembered the empty‑eyed foemen from Gorm.

He also noted that while there were guardrooms in plenty and well‑filled racks of weapons, stands of the heavy mace‑axes, there were few men, widely spread through those rooms, patrols stretched over area of wall. Sulcarkeep was prepared to equip and house thousands of men and a scant hundred or so stood to arms there.

The three of them, Koris, the witch, and Simon drew together on a sea tower where the evening wind strove against their mail.

“I dare not strip Estcarp,” Koris spoke angrily, as if in reply to some argument neither of his companions heard, “to center all our manpower here. Such foolishness would be open invitation to Alizon or the Duchy to invade north and south. Osberic has an outer shell which I do not believe even the jaws of the Kolder can crack, but the meat within it is missing. He waited too long; with all his men in port he might hold, yes. With only this handful, I doubt it.”

“You doubt, Koris, but you will fight,” the woman said. There was neither encouragement nor discouragement in her tone. “Because that is what must be done. And it may well be that this hold will break the Kolder’s jaws. But Kolder does come – that Magnis has foreseen truly.”

The Captain looked at her eagerly. “You have a foretelling for us, lady?”

She shook her head.”Expect nothing from me that I cannot give, Captain. When we rode into that ambush I could see nothing but a blank ahead. By that very negative sign I recognized the Kolder. But better than that I cannot do. And you, Simon?”

He started. “I? But I have no pretense to your Power–” he began and then added more honestly, “I can say nothing – except as a soldier I think this is an able fort, and now I feel as one trapped within it.” He had added that last almost without thinking, but he knew it for the truth.

“But that we shall not say to Osberic,” Koris decided. Together they continued to watch the harbor as the sun set, and more and more the city beneath lost the form of a refuge and took on the outline of a cage.

 

VI

FOG DOOM

 

It began a little after midnight – that creeping line across the sea, blotting out both stars and waves, sending before it a chill which was bom of neither wind nor rain, but which bit insidiously into a man’s bones, slimed his mail with oily beads, tasted salty and yet faintly corrupt upon his lips.

The line of light globes which followed each curve of the claw fortifications was caught. One by one those pools of light were muffled into vague smears of yellow. To watch that creeping was to watch a world being blotted out inch by inch, foot by foot.

Simon strode back and forth across the small sentry platform on the central watch tower. Half the claw fortifications were swallowed, lost. One of the slim raiders in the harbor was sliced in two by that curtain. It resembled no natural fog he had ever seen, unlike the famous blackouts of London, the poisoned industrial smogs of his own world. The way it crept in from the west as a steady curtain suggested only one thing – a screen behind which an attack might be gathering.

Deadened and hollow he caught the clamor of the wall alarms, those brazen gongs stationed every so many feet along the claws. Attack! He reached the door. of the tower and met the witch.

“They’re attacking!”

“Not yet. Those are storm calls, to guide any ship which might be seeking port.”

“A Kolder ship!”

“Perhaps so. But you cannot overturn the customs of centuries in an hour. In fog Sulcarkeep’s gongs serve seamen, only Osberic’s orders can mute them.”

“Then such fogs as this one are known?”

“Fogs are known. Such as this – that is another matter.”

She brushed past him to come out into the open, facing seaward as he had done moments earlier, studying the fast disappearing harbor.

“We of the Power have a certain measure of control over the natural elements, though like all else that is subject to failure or success beyond our forereckoning. It is in the providence of any of my sisterhood to produce a mist which will not only confuse the eyes of the unwary, but also their minds – for a space. But this is different.”

“It is natural?” Simon persisted, sure somehow that it was not. Though why he was so certain of that he could not explain.

“When a potter creates a vase he lays clay upon the wheel and molds it with the skill of his hands to match the plan which is in his brain. Clay is a product of the earth, but that which changes its shape is the product of intelligence and training. It is in my mind that someone – or something – has gathered up that which is a part of the sea, of the air, and has molded it into another shape to serve a purpose.”

“And what do you in return, lady?” Koris had come out behind them. He strode straight to the parapet and slapped his hands down upon the water‑pearled stone. “We are like to be blind men in this!”

She did not look away from the fog, watching it with the intentness of a laboratory assistant engaged in a crucial experiment.

“Blindness they may seek, but blindness can enfold two ways. If they will play at illusion – then let them be countered with their own trick!”

“Fight fog with fog?” the Captain commanded.

“You do not fight one trick with the same. They are calling upon air and water. Therefore we must use water and air in return, but in another fashion.” She tapped her thumbnail against her teeth. “Yes, that might be a confusing move,” she murmured as she swung around. “We must get down to the harbor level. Ask of Magnis a supply of wood, dry chips will be excellent. But, if he has them not, get knives that we may cut them. Also some cloth. And bring it to the center quay.”

The choked clamor of the gongs echoed hollowly across the heart of the harbor as the small knot of Sulcarmen and Guards came out on the quay. An armload of board lengths appeared and the witch took the smallest. Her hands plied the knife clumsily as she strove to whittle out the rude outline of a boat, pointed at bow, rounded at stem. Simon took it from her, peeling off the white strips easily, the others following his example as the woman approved.

They had a fleet of ten, of twenty, of thirty chip boats, palm‑size, each fitted with a stick mast and a cloth sail the witch tied into place. She went down on her knees before that line, and, stooping very low, blew carefully into each of the tiny sails, pressed her finger for a moment on the prow of each of the whittled chips.

“Wind and water, wind and water,” she singsonged. “Wind to hasten, water to bear, sea to carry, fog to ensnare!”

Swiftly her hands moved, tossing one and another of the crude representations of a sea fleet out into the water of the harbor. The fog was almost upon them, but it was still not too thick for Simon to miss an amazing sight. The tiny boats had formed into a wedge‑shaped line pointing straight for the now hidden sea. And, as the first dipped across the line of the fog curtain it was no hastily chipped toy, but a swift, gleaming ship, finer than the slim raiders Osberic had displayed with pride.

The witch caught at Simon’s dangling wrist to draw herself to her feet again. “Do not believe all that you see, outworld man. We deal in illusion, we of the Power. But let us hope that this illusion will be as effective as their fog, frightening off any invaders.”

“They can’t be real ships!” Stubbornly he protested the evidence of his eyes.

“We depend too strongly upon our outer senses. If one can befool the eyes, the fingers, the nose – then the magic is concrete for a space. Tell me, Simon, should you be planning to enter this harbor for attack and then saw out of the fog about your ships a fleet you had not suspected was there, would you not think twice of offering battle? I have only tried to buy us time, for illusion breaks when it is put to any real test. A Kolder ship which would try to lock sides and board one of that fleet could prove it to be what it is. But sometimes time bought is a precious thing.”

 

She was in a measure right. At least, if the enemy had planned to use the blanket of mist to cover an attack on the harbor, they did not follow through. There was no invasion alarm that night, neither was there any lifting of the thick cover over the city as the hour of dawn passed.

The masters of the three ships in the harbor waited upon Osberic for orders, and he could give none, save to wait out the life of the fog. Simon made the rounds of the Guards in Koris’ wake, and sometimes it was necessary for one man to link fingers in the other’s belt lest they lose touch, upon the outer stations of the sea wall. Orders were given that the gongs continue to beat at regular intervals, not now for the protection of those at sea, but merely that one sentry post keep in touch with the next. And men turned strained, drawn faces, half drew weapons as their reliefs came upon them, until one shouted the password or some identification ahead lest he be spitted upon the steel of a jumpy outpost.

“At this rate,” Tregarth commented as he side‑stepped one rush from a Sulcarman they came upon suddenly, and so saved himself from a crippling blow, if not worse, “they will not need to send any attack force, for we shall be flying out upon each other. Let a man seem to wear a beaked helm in this murk and he will speedily be short a head.”

“So I have thought,” the Captain answered shortly. “They play with illusion, too, born of our nerves and fears. But what answer can we give except what we had already done?”

“Anyone with good ears could pick up our passwords.” Simon determined to face the worst. “A whole section of wall could fall to their control, post by post.”

“Can we even be sure that this is an attack?” counter‑questioned the other bitterly. “Outworlder, if you can give better orders here, then do so and I shall accept them gladly! I am a man of war, and the ways of war I know – or thought I knew – well. Also I believed that I knew the ways of wizards, since I serve Estcarp with a whole heart. But this is something I have never met before; I can only do my best.”

“And never have I seen this manner of fighting either,” Simon admitted readily. “It would baffle anyone. But this I think now – they will not come by sea.”

“Because that is the way we look to have them creep upon us?” Koris caught him up quickly. “I do not think that the keep can be assaulted from land. These sea rovers have built shrewdly. It would need siege machinery such as would take weeks to assemble.”

“Sea and land – which leaves?”

“Earth and air,” Koris replied.”Earth! Those under passages!”

“But we cannot spread men too thinly to watch all the underground ways.”

Koris’ sea‑green eyes glowed with the same feral battle light Simon had seen in them at their first meeting.

“There is a watch which can be put upon them, needing no men. A trick I know. Let us get to Magnis.” He began to run, the point of his sheathed sword clinking now and again against the stone walls as he rounded the turns in the keep corridors.

 

Basins were lined up on a table, of all sizes and several shapes, but they were uniformly of copper and the balls Koris was carefully apportioning, one to a bowl, were also of metal. One of the bowl and ball combination, installed in the portion of wall overhanging an underground way, would betray any attempt to force the door far below by the oscillation of ball within basin.

Earth was safeguarded as best they could. Which left – the air. Was it because he was familiar with air warfare that Simon found himself listening, watching, at the cost of a crick in the neck, the murk encasing the towers of the port? Yet a civilization which depended upon the relatively primitive dart guns, the sword, the shield, and a mailed body for offense and defence – no matter what subtle tricks of the mind they called in bolstering aids – could not produce airborne attack as well.

Thanks to Koris’ device of the bowls they had a few moments of warning when the Kolder thrust came. But from all five points where the bowls had been placed that alarm arose at nearly the same instant. The halls leading to each doorway had been stuffed during frenzied hours of labor with all the burnable stuff in the warehouses of the port. Mats of sheep wool and cowhair soaked in oil and tar, which the shipwrights used for the calking, were woven in around torn bales of fine fabrics, bags of dried grain and seeds, and oil and wine poured in rivulets to soak into these giant plugs.

When the bowls warned, torches were applied and other portals closed, sealing off from the central core those flame‑filled ways.

“Let them run their cold dog noses into that!” Magnis Osberic thumped his war ax exultingly on the table in the central hall of the main keep. For the first time since the fog had imprisoned his domain the Master Trader appeared to lose his air of harassment. As a seafarer he hated and feared fog, be it born of nature or the meddling of powers. With a chance for direct action, he was all force and drive again.

“Ahhhhhh!” Across the hubbub in the hall that scream cut like a sword slice. Torture of body was not all of it, for only some supreme fear could have torn it from a human throat.

Magnis, his bull’s head lowering as if he would charge the enemy, Koris, sword ready, a little crouched so that his dwarfish body gathered strength from the earth, the rest of the men in that chamber were frozen for a long second.

Perhaps because during all this period of waiting he had been half expecting it, Simon identified the source first, and sped for the stair which, three floors higher, gave upon the sentry go of the roof.

He did not reach that level. Screams and cries from above, the clash of metal against metal was warning enough. Slowing his pace, Simon drew his gun. And it was good he was cautious for he was midway to the second level when a body rolled down, missing him by a scant inch. It was a Sulcarman, his throat a ragged wound still pumping blood to spatter wall and stair. Simon looked up into a wild confusion.

Two Guardsmen and three of the seafarers still fought, their backs against the wall on the landing of the next level, keeping at bay invaders who attacked with the single‑minded ferocity their kin had displayed at the road ambush. Simon snapped a shot, and then another. But a wave of beaked helms poured unceasingly from above. He could only guess that in some way the enemy had come by air and now held the top floors of the keep.

There was no time to speculate upon their method of getting there – it was enough that they had managed to break through. Two more of the seafarers, one of the Guard were down. The dead and wounded, friends and foe alike were disregarded by the beaked helms. Bodies slipped downstairs – they could not be stopped there. The plug must come below.

Simon leaped for the first landing, kicking open the two doors fronting on it. The furniture favored by Sulcar was heavy stuff. But the smaller pieces could be moved. In that moment Simon summoned up strength he did not know he possessed, jerking and pushing articles out to choke the stairwell.

A beaked head faced him through the upraised legs of a chair used to top his efforts, and a sword point struck for his face. Simon crashed the chair over on that helm. There was a smarting cut on his cheek but the attacker was not a part of the barricade.

“Sul! Sul!”

Simon was elbowed to one side and he saw Magnis’ face, as red as its tawny bristle of mustache, loom up as the trader chopped down, smashed up at the first wave of invaders to reach the stair barrier and claw at the stuff which formed it.

Aim, fire, aim again. Throw away an empty dart clip, reload to fire anew. Straddle a Guardsman down moaning, until the man could be dragged back into whatever safety anyone could find in the keep now. Fire – Fire!

Somehow Simon had come back into the hall, then the party of which he was one were on another stairway, selling each flight dearly as they descended. There was a thin smoke here – tendrils of fog? No, for when it wreathed them its acrid bite stung nose and throat setting them coughing. Aim – fire – grab dart packs from the belt of a fallen Guardsman who could no longer use any weapon.

The steps were behind now. Men shouted hoarsely, and the smoke was worse. Simon smeared his hand across his watering eyes and pulled at the throat scarf of his helmet. His breath came in shallow gasps.

Blindly he followed after his companions. Doors of five‑inch thickness swung after them, were barred and locked. One… two… three… four of such barriers. Then they stumbled into a room facing an installation housed in a casing taller than the giant of a man who leaned against it, dull‑eyed. The Guardsmen and the seafarers who had made it rimmed the room, leaving the strange machine to the master of the city.

Magnis Osberic had lost his bear‑crested helm, his fur cloak was a tattered string trailing from one shoulder. His ax lay across the top of the casing, and from its blade a red line dripped sluggishly to the stone pavement. The ruddiness of his coloring had faded, leaving his skin with a withered look. His eyes were wide, staring at men and not seeing them – Simon guessed that the man was in a state of shock.

“Gone!” He picked up the ax, slipped its long half back and forth in his rope‑calloused hand.”From the air like winged demons! No man can fight against demons.” Then he laughed softly, warmly, as a man might laugh when he took a willing woman into his arms. “But there is also an answer to demons. Sulcarkeep shall not serve that spawn for a nesting place!”

His bull head lowered for the charge once more, swung slowly as he singled out the Estcarp men from among his own followers. “You have fought well, you of the witch blood. But this last is no doom laid upon you. We shall loose the energy which feeds the city powers and blast the port. Get you forth that you may perhaps settle the accounting in a way those air‑flying wizards can understand. Be sure we shall take with us such a number of them that they shall have thinned ranks against that day! Go your way, witch men, and leave us of Sulcarkeep to our final reckoning!”

Urged by his eyes and his voice, as if he had caught each of them in a bear’s grip and thrust them away from him and his, the remnant of the Guard gathered together. Koris was still with them, his hawk helm lacking a wing. And the witch, her face serene, but her lips moving as she walked quietly across the chamber. Twenty more men and Simon.

As one the Guards drew to attention, their stained swords swinging up in salute to those they left. Magnis grunted.

“Pretty, pretty, witchmen. But this is no time for parade. Get out!”

They filed through a small door he indicated, Koris through last to slam and bar it. At a dead run they took that passage. Luckily there were globe lights set in the roof at intervals and the floor was smooth, for the need for haste burned in them.

The sound of sea and surf grew stronger and they came out in a cave where small boats swung at anchor.

“Down!” Simon was pushed aboard with others, and Koris’ hand slapped between his shoulders, sending him face down. Men landed on him and about him, pinning him flat to the rocking bottom. There was the slam of another door – or was it a deck shutting over them? Light was gone and with it air. Simon lay quiet, having no idea of what would happen next.

Under him the boat moved, men’s bodies rolled, he was kicked, prodded, and he buried his face in the crook of his arm. The craft which held them swung about and his stomach fought against that motion. He had never been too good a sailor. Mainly occupied with his fight against sickness, he was not prepared for a blast which seemed to end the world with one blow of sound and pressure.

They were still rolling in the waves, but when Simon lifted his head he gulped clean air. He wriggled and strove, paying no attention to the grunts and protests of those about him. No more fog was his first dazed thought – and then – it was day! The sky, the sea about them, the coast behind were clear and bright.

But when did the sun rise from the shore, leap up in sky‑touching flames from a land base? He had been deafened by the blast, but not blinded. They were heading out to sea, leaving the source of that heat and light behind them.

One… two… three cockshells of boats he counted. There were no sails, they must be motored in some way. A man sat erect in the stem of theirs, his shoulders identifying him. Koris held that tiller. They were free of the inferno which had been the port of Sulcarkeep, but where did they head?

Fog gone, and the fire on shore giving them light. But the waves which swept them along were not born of any calm sea. Perhaps the shock of that blast with which Magnis had destroyed the keep had been communicated to the ocean. For a wind drove down upon them as if a hand strove to press them beneath the surface, and those on board the featherweight ships began to realize that they had gained perhaps only a few minutes of life rather than full escape.

 


                                       

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