Witch World-3

PART II: VENTURE OF VERLAINE

 

I

AX MARRIAGE

 

The sea was dull and gray, the color of an ax blade which would never take on a sheen no matter how much one polished, or a steel mirror misted by moisture one could not rub away. And above it the sky was as flat, until it was hard to distinguish the meeting line between air and water.

Loyse huddled on the ledge beneath the arrow‑split window. She dreaded the depths, for this turret, bulging roundly from its parent wall, hung directly over the wicked, surf‑collared rocks of the shoreline, and she had no head for heights. Yet she was often drawn to this very seat because when one stared straight out into the emptiness, which was seldom troubled save by a diving bird, one could see freedom.

Her hands, long fingered, narrow of palm, pressed flat against the stone on either side of the window as she did lean forward an inch or so, making herself eye what she feared, as she made herself do many things her body, her mind shrank from. To be Fulk’s daughter one must grow an inner casing of ice and iron which no blow to the flesh, no taunt to the spirit could crack. And she had been intent upon that fashioning of an interior citadel for more than half the years of her short life.

There had been many women at Verlaine, for Fulk was a man of lusty appetite. And Loyse had watched them come and go from her babyhood, cold‑eyed and measuring herself. To none had he given wifehood, by none had he sired other offspring – which was Fulk’s great dissatisfaction and so far her own gain. For Verlaine was not Fulk’s by blood, but by his one and only marriage, with her mother, and only as long as Loyse lived could he continue to hold it and its rich rights of pillage and wreckage, ashore and afield. There were kinsmen of her mother’s in Karsten who would be quick enough to claim lordship here were she to die.

But, had Fulk sired a son by any of the willing – and unwilling – women he had brought to the huge bed in the lord’s chamber, then he could have claimed more than just his own life tenancy for the male heir under the new laws of the Duke. By the old customs mother‑right was for inheritance; now one took a father’s holding, and only in cases where there was no male heir did the old law prevail.

Loyse cherished her tiny thread of power and safety, held to it as her one hope. Let Fulk be chopped down in one of his border raids, let him be sought out by some vengeful male of a family despoiled, and she and Verlaine would be free together! Ah, then they would see what a woman could do! They would learn that she had not been moping in secret all these years as most of them believed.

She drew back from the ledge, walked across the room. It was chill with the breath of the sea, gloomy with lack of sun. But she was used to cold and dusk, some of both were a fast part of her now.

Beyond the curtained bed she came to stand in front of a mirror. It was no soft lady’s looking glass, but a shield, diamond‑shaped, polished through patient hours until it gave back to the room a slightly distorted reflection. And to stand so, facing squarely what it told her, was another part of Loyse’s strict self‑discipline.

She was small, but that was the only feminine characteristic she shared with the blowsy women who satisfied her father’s men, or with the richer fare he kept for his own enjoyment. Her body was as straight and slender as a boy’s, with only shadow curves to hint she was not a lad. The hair which lay in braids across her shoulders, and then fell below waist level, was thick enough. But it was lank and of so pale a yellow that except in direct sunlight it was white as a beldame’s, while lashes and brows of the same colorless tint made her face seem strangely blank and without intelligence. The skin pulled tightly across the fine bones of her face and chest was smooth and also lacking in any real color. Even the line of her lips was of the palest rose. She was a bleached thing, grown in the dark, but a vitality within her was as strong as the supple blade a wise swordsman chooses over the heavier hacking weapon of the inexperienced.

Suddenly her hands flew together, gripped tightly for an instant. Then she as quickly snapped them apart and to her sides, though under her hanging sleeves they were still balled into fists, nails biting palms. Loyse did not turn to the door, nor give any other outward hint that she had heard that rattling of the latch. She knew just how far she dared go in her subtle defiance of Fulk, and from that limit she never retreated. Sometimes she thought despairingly her father never recognized her rebellion at all.

The door slammed back against the wall. Verlaine’s lord always treated any barrier as if he were storming an enemy fortress. And he tramped in now with the tread of a man who has just lifted the city keys from the sword point of a vanquished commander.

If Loyse was the colorless creature of the dark, Fulk was lord of sun and flamboyant light. His good body was beginning to show traces of his rough living, but he was still more than handsome, his red‑gold head carried with the arrogance of a prince, his well‑cut features only a little blurred. Most ofVerlaine worshipped their lord. He had an openhanded if uneven generosity when he was pleased, and his vices were all ones which his men understood and shared.

Loyse caught his reflection in the mirror, brave, bright, turning her even more into a night taper. But she did not face about.

“Greetings, Lord Fulk.” Her voice was toneless.

“Lord Fulk, is it? Is that the way you speak to your father, wench? Come show a little more than ice in your veins for once, girl!”

His hand slid under one of the braids on her shoulder, and he forced her around, gripping with strength which would leave her bruised for a week. He did it deliberately, she knew, but she would give no sign of feeling.

“Here I come with news as would send any proper wench leaping with joy, and you turn me that cold fish face of yours with no pleasure,” he contemplated jovially. But that which looked out of his eyes was not born of good humor.

“You have not yet voiced this news, my lord.”

His fingers kneaded into her flesh as if seeking to find and crush the bones hidden there.

“To be sure I have not! Yet it is news as will set any maid’s heart to pounding in her. Wedding and bedding, my girl, wedding and bedding!”

Purposely Loyse chose, but with a fear she had not known before, to misunderstand him.

“You take a lady for Verlaine, my lord? Fortune grant you a fair face for such an occurrence.”

His grip on her did not loosen, and now he shook her, with the outward appearance of one playfully admonishing, but with a force which brought pain.

“You may be a wry‑faced nothing of a woman, but you are not stupid of wit, no matter how you may think to befool others. You should be properly a female at your age. At least you will now have a lord to make trial of that. And I’d advise you not to play your tricks with him. By all accounts he likes his bedfellows biddable!”

What she had long feared most had come upon her and it brought with it a betrayal of feeling she could not bite back in time.

“A wedding needs free consent–” She stopped then, knowing shame for her momentary breaking.

He was laughing, relishing having torn that protest out of her. His hand moved across her shoulder to vise upon the back of her neck in a pinch which brought an involuntary gasp out of her. Then, as one moves a lifeless puppet, he whirled her about, pushing her face toward the mirror shield, holding her helpless there while he pelted her with words he believed would hurt worse than any beating his hands could inflict.

“Look upon that curdled mass of nothing you call a face! Do you think any man could set his lips to it without closing his eyes and wishing himself elsewhere? Be glad, wench, that you have something besides your face and that bone of a body to lure a suitor. You’ll consent freely to anyone who’ll take you. And be glad you have a father who can make a bargain as good as I have for you. Yes, girl, you’d better crawl on those stiff knees of yours and thank any gods you have that Fulk looks after his own.”

His words were a mutter of thunder; she saw no reflection in the mirror, save certain misty horrors of her own imagining. Which one of the brutes who rode in Fulk’s train would she be thrown to – for some advantage for his lord?

“Karsten himself–” There was a sort of wonder underlying Fulk’s rising exultation. “Karsten, mind you, and this lump of unbaked dough squeaks of consent! You are lacking in wits!” He released her with a sudden push which sent her flying against the shield and the metal rang against the wall. She fought for her balance, kept her feet, and turned to face him.

“The Duke!” That she could not believe. Why should the ruler of the duchy ask for the daughter of a shore baron, old and proud as her maternal lineage might be?

“Yes, the Duke!” Fulk seated himself on the end of the bed, swinging his booted feet. “Talk of fortune! Some good providence winked at your birth, my girl. Karsten’s herald rode in this morning with an offer of ax marriage for you.”

“Why?”

Fulk’s feet stopped moving. He did not scowl, but his face was sober.

“There are a bristle of reasons like darts at his back!” He held up his hands and began to tell off the fingers of one with the forefinger of the other.

“Item: The Duke, for all his might, was a rider of mercenaries before he set his seal on Karsten, and I doubt if he can rightly name his mam, let alone his sire.

“He crushed those of the lords who tried to face him down. But that was a good half‑score of years ago and he no longer wants to ride in mail and smoke rebels out of their castles. Having won his duchy he wishes now some easy years in which to enjoy it. A wife taken from the ranks of those he opposed is a gift offering for peace. And while Verlaine may not be the richest hold in Karsten, yet the blood of its lords is very high – was not that often made very plain to me when I came a‑wooing? And I was no blank shield, but the younger son ofFarthom in the northern hills.” His lips twisted as if he remembered certain slights out of the past.

“And since you are the heiress of Verlaine you are very suitable.”

Loyse laughed. “It cannot be true, lord, that I am the only marriageable maid of gentle birth in all Karsten.”

“How right. And he could do very well elsewhere. But as I have said, my dearest of daughters, you have certain other advantages. Verlaine is a coast holding with age‑old rights, and the Duke has ambitions which run in more peaceful lines now than sword conquest. What say you, Loyse, if there was to be a port here to attract the northern trade?”

“And what would Sulcarkeep be doing while such a port came into being? Those who swear by Sul are jealous of their holdings.”

“Those who swear by Sul may soon be able to swear by nothing at all,” he returned with a calm certainty which carried a note of conviction. “They have troublesome neighbors who are growing more troublesome yet. And Estcarp, where they might look for aid, is a hollow shell eaten out by its preoccupation with witchery. One push and the whole land will fall into the filthy dust which should have buried it long ago.”

“So, for my blood and a plan for a port, Lord Yvian offers marriage,” she persisted, unable yet to believe that this was true. “Yet is the mighty lord free to send his ax hither for a wedding? I am a maid close kept in a hold far from Kars, yet have I heard of a certain Aldis who issues orders, to have them promptly obeyed by all who wear the Duke’s sign.”

“Yvian will have Aldis, and, yes, half a hundred of her ilk, and it is no concern of yours, girl. Give him a son – if your thin blood can form a man, the which I doubt! Give him a son and hold up your head at the high table, but trouble him not with any mewling calls upon him for more than company courtesy. Be glad for your honors and if you are wise you’ll speak Aldis and the others fair in their time. Yvian is not said to be a patient or easily forgiving man.” He slid down the slope of the bed and stood up, ready to be gone. But before he went he detached a small key from the chain at his belt and tossed it to her.

“For all your ghost face, girl, you’ll not go to your wedding without your due or gauds. I’ll send Bettris to you; she has an eye for pretties and can help you pull out enough for robes. And veils for your face, you’ll need them! And keep an eye to Bettris, don’t let her take more than she can carry in her two hands for herself.”

Loyse caught up the key so eagerly that he laughed. “So that much of you is female – you want gauds as much as any wench. Give us another storm or two and we can make up what you drag out of the storehouse anyway.”

He strode out, leaving the door wide open. As Loyse followed him to shut it once again, she treasured that key tight in her hand. For months, years, she had schemed to get that same bit of metal into her holding. Now she had been given it openly and none would dispute her rummaging for what she truly wanted in the storehouse of Verlaine.

Rights of wreckage and plunder over wave and shore! Since Verlaine Keep had risen on the heights between two treacherous capes, the sea had brought its lords a rich harvest. And the storehouse of the pile was indeed a treasure room, only opened upon its lord’s orders. Fulk must believe that he had far the best of the bargain with Yvian to allow her unsupervised plundering there. For the company of Bettris she did not fear. Fulk’s latest bedfellow was as greedy as she was fair, and she would not cast any eye on Loyse’s choices, given a chance to hunt on her own.

She tossed the key from right hand to left, and for the first time a thin smile curved her pale lips. Well might Fulk be surprised at her choices from the treasure of Verlaine! Also he might be astounded at other things she knew about these walls which he accepted as such safe barriers. Her gaze flickered for a moment to the one where the shield mirror hung.

There was a hurried rap at her door. Loyse smiled again, this time with contempt. It had not taken Bettris long to act upon Fulk’s orders. But at least the woman dared not intrude upon her lover’s daughter uninvited. Loyse went to the door.

“The Lord Fulk–” began the girl who stood without, her plump beauty as full and vivid as Fulk’s virility.

Loyse held up the key. “I have it.” She named no name, gave no title to the other, but glanced at those well‑rounded shoulders bursting out of the robe which strained over every luxuriant curve the other advertised. Behind Bettris were two of the serving men, a chest between them. Loyse raised her eyebrows and the other laughed nervously.

“Lord Fulk would have you select your bride‑clothes, lady. He said there was no need to be timid in the storehouse.”

“The Lord Fulk is generous,” returned Loyse tonelessly. “Shall we go?”

The women avoided the great hall and the outer chambers of the hold, for the treasure room lay at the foot of the tower in which were the private quarters of the family. For that Loyse was glad; she kept well away from the central life of her father’s house. And when they came at last to the door opened by the key she bore, she was very pleased that only Bettris dared follow her within. The serving men pushed the chest in after them and left.

Three globes set in the ceiling gave light to show chests and boxes, bales and bags. Bettris smoothed the robe over her hips in the gesture of a keeper of a market stall settling down to a spate of bargaining. Her dark eyes darted from pile to pile, and Loyse, putting the key into her belt purse, added fuel to that avid hunger.

“I do not think that the Lord Fulk would deny you some selections for yourself. In fact he said as much to me. But I would warn you to be discreet and not too greedy.”

Those plump hands fluttered from hips to full, only half‑covered breasts. Loyse crossed to a table cutting down the center of the room, lifted the lid of a casket resting there. Even she blinked at the massed wealth within. She had not truly realized until that moment that Verlaine’s rapine over the years had yielded so well. From a tangle of chains and necklets she freed a great brooch, gaudy with red stones and much chasing, a bauble not to her taste, but one which in a manner matched the overblown comeliness of her companion.

“Such a piece as this,” she suggested and held it out.

Bettris’ hands crooked to hold it, then she snatched them back. The point of her tongue showed between her wet red lips as she glanced from the brooch to Loyse and back again. Conquering her repugnance, the girl held the massive gem‑set thing to the deep V‑throat of the other’s robe, mastering the impulse to jerk back when she felt the softness of Bettris’ flesh.

“It becomes you, take it!” In spite of her wish Loyse’ words were a sharp order. But the bait was taken. With attention only for the gems, the woman moved to the table, and Loyse was, for that moment and perhaps others, free to do as she pleased.

She knew what to look for, but how it might be stored she was unsure. Slowly the girl moved between piles of goods. Some were stained with salt rime and from one or two came a faint exotic scent. Having put a small barrier of boxes between herself and Bettris, she chanced upon a chest which looked promising.

Loyse’s fragile appearance was deceiving. Just as she had disciplined her emotions and her mind against this day, so had she trained her body. The lid was heavy, but she had it up. And knew by the smell of oil, the sight of the discolored cloths on top, she was hot on the scent. She pawed aside those cloths gingerly, fearing to stain her hands and so reveal the nature of her search. Then she lifted out a shirt of mail, holding it to measure against her shoulders. Too large – perhaps she could find nothing fitted to her slight frame.

She delved deeper. A second shirt – a third – this must have been part of the stock in trade of a master smith. At the bottom was one which must have been made to order for the stripling son of some overlord. For against her it needed very little change at all. The rest were bundled back into the chest while she folded her find as small as possible.

Bettris was trapped by the casket of jewels and Loyse did not doubt that more than one piece from that coffer was now hidden about her person. But it gave her a chance to make her own raids, moving almost openly now between the box she had brought with her and her sources of supply, adding lengths of silk and velvet, a cape of fur, as topping concealment.

To please Bettris and forestall suspicion, Loyse chose from the jewelry also and then summoned the men to carry the chest back to her chamber. She was afraid Bettris might urge unpacking on her, but the bribe had worked well, the woman was in a fever to examine her own spoils privately and did not linger.

In a fury of speed, tempered by caution and the precision of careful foreplanning, Loyse set to work. Those hastily selected lengths of fabric, those packets of lace and embroidery, were dumped on her bed. Then she was on her knees clearing the coffer where her present wardrobe lay. Some things were long ready, fashioned long ago. But here were all the rest. With a care she had not granted the fine stuffs Loyse placed together the dower she intended to take from Verlaine, on her back, in her purse, in the saddle bags which were all she dared carry.

Mail shirt, leather underclothing, weapons, helm, gold trade tokens, a handful of jewels. Over those she threw once more her own garments, patting them smooth, with the care of a good housekeeper. She was breathing a little fast, but she had the coffer closed and was spreading out the other loot when she heard that tread outside – Fulk returning for his key.

Impulsively she caught up a veil bordered in silver thread, a dew‑hung cobweb of a thing, and pulled it about her head and shoulders, seeing that it became her vilely, but generous enough now that her purpose was gained to allow her father his chance for a jeer or two. With it on she stepped once more to pose before the shield mirror.

 

II

SEA WRACK

 

The very circumstances which she hoped would set her free worked against Loyse during the next few days. For while Yvian of Karsten did not ride himself to Verlaine either to inspect the bride he had bargained for or the heritage which would come with her, he sent a train proper enough to do her honor. And she was called upon to be on show, so that underneath her outer shell she seethed with impatience and growing desperation.

At last she pinned her hopes to the wedding feast, for then, if ever, there would be muddled heads within the keep. Fulk wanted to impress the Duke’s lords with his lavish open‑handedness. He would produce the liquid treasures of the hold and it would be her best chance to follow her plans.

 

The storm struck first, such a wild blast of wind and raging sea water as Loyse, familiar with that coast since her birth, had never seen before. For the spray reached high enough to spatter the windows of her tower room with its salt foam. And Bettris, and the maid Fulk had sent to help with the sewing of her robes, shivered and shrank with each bat of the wind’s fist ringing through the stones of the walls.

Bettris stood up, a roll of green silk tumbling to the floor, her dark eyes wide. Her fingers moved in the sacred sign of her forgotten village childhood.

“Witch storm,” her voice came small, overridden by the scream of the gale until Loyse heard only a thin whisper.

“This is not Estcarp,” Loyse matched a length of embroidery to satin and set even stitches. “We do not have power over wind and wave. And Estcarp does not move beyond her own borders. It is a storm, that is all. And if you wish to please Lord Fulk you will not tremble at sea storms for Veriaine knows them often. How else,” she paused to draw a new length of thread through a needle‑eye, “do you think our treasure is gathered?”

Bettris turned on her, lips strained over her sharp little teeth in a vixen’s snarl. “I am coast born, I have seen storms in plenty. Yes, I have coursed the shore with the gleaners afterwards. Which is more than you have ever deigned to do, my lady! But this is like no storm I have seen or heard tell of in all my life! There is evil in it, I tell you – great evil!”

“Evil for those who must trust to the waves.” Loyse put down her sewing. She crossed to the windows, but there was nothing to be seen through the lace of spume which blotted out the dark of the day.

The maid made no pretense at work. She was drawn in upon her self close to the hearth where sea coral burned fitfully, rocking back and forth, her hands pressed against her breast as if she would ease some pain there. Loyse went to her. She had little of pity or interest in the wenches of the castle – from Bettris and her countless predecessors to the slatterns in the guardroom. Now against her own inclination she asked:

“You ail, wench?’

The girl was cleaner than most. Perhaps she had been ordered to tidy herself before being sent hither. Now the face she turned to Loyse drew the attention of Fulk’s daughter. This was no village girl, no peasant dragged in to pleasure a retainer and then become a work drudge. Her face was a mask of fear which had been so long a part of her that it had shaped her as a potter shapes clay. Yet under that something else struggled.

Bettris laughed shrilly. “ ’Tis no pain in her belly that eats at her, only memories. She was a sea wrack herself once. Weren’t you, slut!” Her soft leather shoe struck the girl’s haunch, nearly turning her into the fire.

“Leave her alone!” For the first time Loyse flashed her hidden fire. She had always kept aloof from the strand after a storm, since there was nothing she could do to dispute Fulk’s rule – or rather Fulk’s license there – she would not harrow herself with sights she could not forget.

Bettris simpered uneasily. With Loyse she was uncertain of her ground, so she did not rise to the challenge.

“Send the mewling idiot away. You will get no work from her as long as the storm rages – nor afterwards for a while. ’Tis a pity for she is clever with her needle, else she would have been sent to fatten the shore eels long ago.”

Loyse went to the wide expanse of the bed where much of her gear had been spread about. There was a shawl there, plain in the welter of brilliant silks and fine fabrics. Catching it up she took it back to the fireside and threw it about the shuddering maid. Disregarding Bettris’ amazement, Loyse dropped on her knees, put her hands to cover those of the girl, and looking into that drawn face, tried to will away from them both the grisly customs of Veriaine which had warped them in different ways.

Bettris pulled at her sleeve.

“How dare you?” Loyse blazed.

The other stood her ground, a sly grin now on her full lips. “The hour grows late, lady. Would Lord Fulk take it well that you nurse this slut when he meets with the Duke’s lords to sign the marriage contract? Shall I tell him why you do not come?”

Loyse regarded her levelly. “I shall do my lord’s bidding in this, as in other things, wench. Do not think to lesson me!”

She broke hold with the girl’s hands reluctantly, saying:

“Stay here. No one shall come near you. Understand – no one!”

Did the other understand? She was rocking back and forth again, racked by old pain cut into her dulled mind even after the scars had faded from her body.

“I do not need you to robe me,” Loyse turned on Bettris, and the other flushed. She could not face the younger girl down and she knew it.

“You would be the better for some knowledge of the kind of sorcery any woman knows, lady,” she replied sharply “I could show you how to make a man look at you full faced as you pass. If you would but put a little dark stain upon your brows and lashes, some of the rose salve on your lips–”Her annoyance was forgotten, as her creative instinct aroused. She surveyed Loyse critically and impersonally and the other found herself listening in spite of her scorn for Bettris and all she represented. “Yes, if you would listen to me, lady, you could perhaps draw your lord’s eyes away from that Aldis long enough for him to see another face. There are other ways, also, for the charming of a man.” Her tongue tip worked along her lips. “There is much I could teach you, lady, which would give you weapons to use for yourself.” She drew nearer, some of the glitter of the storm flashing in her eyes.

“Yvian has bargained for me as I stand,” Loyse replied, rejecting Bettris’ offer, all that Bettris stood for, “and so must be satisfied with what he gets!” And that is more true than Bettris can guess, she added silently.

The woman shrugged. “It is your life, lady. And before you are out of it, you shall discover that you cannot order it to your liking.”

“Have I ever?” asked Loyse quietly. “Now go. As you have said, it grows late and I have much to do.”

 

She sat through the ceremonies of the contract signing with her usual calm acceptance. The men the Duke had sent to fetch his bride to Kars were three very different types, and she found it interesting to study them.

Hunold was a comrade from Yvian’s old mercenary days. He had a reputation as a soldier which reached even into such a backwater as Verlaine. Oddly enough his appearance did not match either his occupation, nor his reputation. Where Loyse had expected to see a man such as her father’s seneschal – though perhaps slicked over with some polish – she found herself fronting a silk clad, drawling, languid courtier, who might never have felt the weight of mail on his back. His rounded chin, long lashed eyes, smooth cheeks, gave him a deceptive youth, as well as the seeming of untried softness. And Loyse, trying to match the man to the things she had heard concerning him, wondered and was a little afraid.

Siric, who represented the Temple of Fortune, who tomorrow would say the words while her hands rested on the war ax, thus making her as much Yvian’s as if he clasped her in truth, was old. He had a red face and there was a swelling blue vein in the middle of his low forehead. As he listened or spoke in a soft mumble, he munched continually on small sweetmeats from a comfit box his servant kept ever in reach, and his yellow priest’s robe strained over a paunch of notable dimensions.

The Lord Duarte was of the old nobility. But in turn he did not suit his role very well. Small and thin, with a twitching tic which pulled at his lower lip, the harassed air of a man constrained to some task he loathed, he spoke only when an answer was demanded of him. And alone of the three he paid some attention to Loyse. She discovered him watching her broodingly, but there was nothing in his manner which hinted of pity or promise of aid. It was rather that she was the symbol of trouble he would like to sweep from his path.

Loyse was grateful that custom allowed her to escape that night’s feasting. Tomorrow she must sit through the start of the wedding banquet, but as soon as the wine began to pass – yes – then! Holding to that thought she hurried back to her room.

She had forgotten the sewing wench, and it was with a start that she saw a figure outlined against the window. The wind was dying now as if the worst of the storm had blown out. But there was another sound, the keening of one who has been hopelessly bereaved. And salt air bit at her from the opened pane.

Angry because of her own worries, tense over what was to come and to what she must nerve herself during the next twenty‑four hours, Loyse sprang across the room and seized me swinging window frame, pulling at the girl that she might slam it shut. Though the wind had ceased, the clouds were still slashed by lightning.

And in one such revelation Loyse saw what the other must have watched for long moments.

Driving in upon the waiting fangs of the cape were ships: two… three of them. And such ships as dwarfed the coastwise traders she had seen pulled to their deaths there before by that treacherous onshore current which enriched and damned Verlaine. These could only be part of a proud fleet of some great seafaring lord. Yet in the continued flashes of light which gave only seconds’ viewing, Loyse could sight no activity on board any of the vessels, no attempts being made to ward off fate. They were ghost ships sailing on to their deaths and apparently their crews did not care.

The lights of the wreckers, of the shoreline scavengers, were already moving in clusters from the high gate of Verlaine. For a man on the spot might just conceal some rich picking for himself in the general confusion, though Fulk’s weighty hand and a quick noose for those caught had cut down such thievery to a shadow. They would cast nets to bring in the flotsam, turn to tasks they had long practice in. And for any who went ashore still living! Loyse exerted her strength and dragged the girl away, shut and barred the window.

But to her surprise the face the other now turned to her was no longer troubled by ancient terrors. There was intelligence in the depths of the girl’s dark eyes, excitement, a gathering strength.

She held her head slightly to one side as if she listened for some sound she must sort out of the brazen clamor of the storm. More and more it was apparent that whatever had been her place in the world before the sea brought her to Verlaine, she was no common soldier’s wench.

“That which has been long in the building,” the girl’s tone was remote, she spoke as if from the core of some experience Loyse could never know. “Choose, choose well. For this night is the fate of countries, as well as that of men, to be made and unmade!”

“Who are you?” Loyse demanded as the girl continued to change before her eyes. She was no monster, put on no shape of beast or bird as rumor whispered could be done by the witches of Estcarp. But that which had lain dormant, wounded almost to death, within her struggled once again for life, showed through her scarred body.

“Who am I? Nobody… nothing. But one comes who is greater than the I who once lived. Choose well, Loyse of Verlaine – and live. Choose ill – and die, as I have died, bit by bit, day by day.”

“That fleet–” Loyse half turned to the windows. Could it possibly be that some invader, reckless enough to sacrifice his ships to win foothold on the cape and so a path to Verlaine, sailed out there? That was a mad thought. The ships were doomed; few if any of their crewmen could win the shore alive, and there they would find the men of Verlaine had prepared the grimmest of welcomes.

“Fleet?” echoed the girl. “There is no fleet – only life – or death. You have something of us within you, Loyse. Prove yourself now and win!”

“Something of you? Who are you – or what?”

“I am nobody and nothing. Ask me rather what I was, Loyse of Verlaine, before your people pulled me from the sea.”

“What were you?” the other asked obediently as might a child at an elder’s command.

“I was one of Estcarp, woman of the sea coast. Now do you understand? Yes, I had the Power – until it was reft from me in the hall below us here, while men laughed and cheered the deed. For the gift is ours – sealed to our women – only while our bodies remain inviolate. To Verlaine I was a female body and no more. So I lost what made me live and breathe – I lost myself.

“Can you understand what it means to lose yourself?” She studied Loyse. “Yes, I almost believe that you do, since you move now to protect what you have. My gift is gone, crushed out as one crushes out the last coal of an unwanted fire, but the ashes of it remains. So do I now know that one greater than I had ever hoped to be comes in on the drive of the storm. And she shall determine more than one of our futures!”

“A witch!” Loyse did not shrink; instead excitement flared. The power of the women of Estcarp was legendary. She had fed upon every tale which had come out of the north concerning them and their gifts. And she smarted now with the realization of opportunity lost.

Why had she not known of this woman before – learned of her–

“Yes, a witch. So they name us when they understand us but little. But do not think to have anything of me now, Loyse. I am only the charred brands of a long quenched fire. Bend your will and wit to aid the other who comes.”

“Will and wit!” Loyse laughed harshly.”Wit I have and will, but no power here, ever. Not one soldier will obey me, nor stay his hand at my bidding. Better appeal to Bettris. When my father is in humor with her, she has some slight recognition from his people.”

“You have only to seize opportunity when it comes.” The other allowed the shawl to slip from her shoulders, folded it neatly, and laid it on the bed as she passed it on her way to the door. “Take your opportunity and use it well, Loyse of Verlaine. And tonight sleep sound for your hour has not yet come.”

She was out of the door before Loyse could move to stop her. And then the room was curiously empty, as if the girl had drawn after her some pulsing life which had watched and waited in shadowed corners.

Slowly Loyse put off her robe of ceremony, replaited her hair by touch, rather than with the aid of the mirror. Somehow she did not wish to look into that mirror now, for a pricking thought that something else might stand behind to peer over her shoulder lurked in her mind. Many foul deeds had been done in the great hall of Verlaine since Fulk became master there. But now she believed that perhaps the one which would bring him to judgment had been wrought with the woman of Estcarp for its victim.

And so intent was she upon her thoughts that she did not remember this was her wedding eve. For the first time since she had hidden them there, she did not bring out the garments resting at the bottom of her chest, to examine them and gloat over the promise they held.

 

Along the shore the wind whined, though it did not toss the spray mountain high as it had earlier. And those who sheltered, waiting for the harvest of waves and rocks were eager. The fleet, which had looked so fine from the tower of Loyse’s chamber, was even more imposing from the shore.

Hunold gripped his cloak tight at his throat and stared through the gloom. No ships of Karsten were those, and this wrecking could only serve the duchy. He was firm in the private belief that they were about to witness the last moments of an enemy raiding force. And it was equally good that he could keep an eye upon Fulk under these circumstances. Rumor had built very high the harvest of plunder Verlaine took. And when Yvian wedded that pale nothing of a wench, he could demand an accounting of all treasure in his wife’s name. Yes, Fortune smiled when she set Hunold on the shore this night to watch, and list, and gather a report for the Duke.

Certain now that the doomed ships could not possibly claw off the cape, the wreckers from the hold boldly set out their lanterns along the strand. If fools from the vessels tried to come ashore at those beacons, so much the better, they would only save the plunderers the time and bother of hunting them down.

So it was that those beams, reaching out over the heaving of the waves, caught upon the first prow swinging inward. It loomed high, buoyed up by the combers, and there were shouts from the watchers, wagers hurriedly offered and accepted as to the place of its crashing. High it lifted and then slammed forward, the rocks under the forepart of its keel. Then – it was gone!

Those on the shore were men confronted by the impossible. At first some of the more imaginative were certain they sighted the wreckage of a broken‑backed ship, sure that it was tossing near to their nets. But there was nothing but the froth of wind beaten water. No ship nor wreckage.

None of them stirred. At that moment they were held by their disbelief in the evidence of their own eyes. Another of the proud ships was coming. This one pointed to the patch of rock upon which Hunold stood with Fulk as straightly as if some unseen helmsman set that course. In it came stoutly. No men clung to its rigging, no living thing could be sighted on deck.

Once again the waves raised up their burden to smash the vessel down upon the teeth of the reef. And this time it was so close to shore that Hunold thought a man could leap to where he himself stood from the deserted deck. Up and up the prow rose, its fantastically carved figurehead showing open jaws to the sky. Then down – the water swirling.

And it was gone!

Hunold threw out a hand, seized upon Fulk, only to see in the shocked paleness of the other’s face the same incredulous terror. And when a third ship came in, boring straight for the reef, the men of Verlaine fled, some of them screaming in panic. Deserted lanterns lit a shore where nets trailed into foaming water empty of even one floating board.

Later a hand caught such a net, caught and held with a grip which was a last desperate clutch for life. A body rolled in the surf, but net held, and hand held. Then there was a long crawl for shore, until a beaten, half‑dead swimmer lay prone on the sand and slept.

 

III

CAPTIVE WITCH

 

It was generally conceded among the commoners of Verlaine that the vanishing fleet they had gathered to plunder was an illusion sent by demons. And Fulk could not have flogged any man to the strand side the next morning. Nor did he try his leadership so high as to give such an order.

The affair of the marriage must still be pushed before any hint of this tale could get back to Kars and give a legitimate reason for refusing the heiress of Verlaine. To counter any superstitious fears which the three ducal agents might harbor, Fulk reluctantly took them to the treasurehouse, presenting each with a valuable souvenir, setting aside a gem‑set sword as a token of his admiration for the Duke’s battle prowess. But throughout he sweated under his tunic, and fought in himself a new tendency to inspect dark comers of staircase and corridor a little too intently.

He also noted that none of his guests made an allusion to the happenings on the reef, and wondered whether that was a good or bad sign. It was not until they were in his private council chamber an hour before the wedding that Hunold took from the front of his furred over robe a small object he set with some care in a patch of watery sunlight from the largest window.

Siric pushed his paunch against his knees and puffed once or twice as he leaned forward curiously to inspect it.

“What is this, Lord Commander? What is this? Have you despoiled some village brat of his toy?”

Hunold balanced his find on the palm of his hand. Clumsily fashioned as it was, the shape of the carved chip was clear enough – that of a boat. And a broken stick stood for a mast.

“This, Reverend Voice,” he returned softly, “is the mighty ship, or one of the mighty ships, we saw come in to their end just outside these walls last night. Yes, it is a toy, but such a toy as we do not play with hereabouts. And for the safety of Karsten I must ask of you, Lord Fulk, what dealing do you have with that spawn of the outer darkness – the witches of Estcarp?”

Fulk, stung, stared at the chip boat. His face paled, and then grew dark as the blood tide arose. But he fought furiously to control his temper. If he played ill now he would lose the whole game.

“Would I have sent the gleaners to the reefs, prepared to receive a chip fleet to loot it?” He managed a reasonable counterfeit of serenity. “I take it that you fished that from the sea this morning. Lord Commander? But what leads you to believe that it was a part of any Estcarp magic, or that the ships we saw were born of such trickery?”

“This was plucked from the sand this morning, yes,” Hunold agreed. “And I know of old the illusions of the witches. To make it certain, we found something else on the shore this morning, my men and I, and this is a very great treasure, one to rival any you have shown us as being wave‑brought to your keep. Marc, Jothen!” He raised his voice and two of the Duke’s shieldmen came in, a roped prisoner between them, though they seemed uneasy to handle that captive.

“I give you part of the fleet,” Hunold tossed the chip to Fulk. “And now. Lord Fulk, I show you one who had the making of it, if I mistake not, and I do not think that I do!”

Fulk was used to salt‑stained captives dragged from the sea’s maw and his dealing with such was swift, designed mostly to one end. Also once before he had handled the self‑same problem and handled it well. Hunold might have shaken him for a space, only a very small space. He was fully confident again.

“So,” he settled back in his seat with the smile of one watching the amusement of the less sophisticated, “you have taken you a witch.” Boldly he surveyed the woman. She was a thin piece, but there was spirit in her – she would furnish good sport. Perhaps Hunold would like to undertake her taming. None of these witches were ever beauties, and this one was as washed out as if she had been fighting waves for a month. He studied the clothing covering her straight limbs more closely.

That was leather – garments such as one wore under mail! She had gone armed then. Fulk stirred. A mail clad witch and that phantom fleet! Was Estcarp on the move and did that move head toward Verlaine? Estcarp had several scores she might mark up against his hold, though hitherto no northerner appeared to be aware of his activities. Put that to the back of the mind to be considered later; now one must think of Hunold and what could be done to keep Karsten an ally.

Carefully he avoided meeting the captive’s eyes. But he asserted a measure of his old superiority.

“Has it not yet come to common knowledge in Kars, Lord Commander, that these witches may bend a man to their will by the power of their eyes? I see your shieldmen have taken no precautions against such an attack.”

“It would seem you know something of these witches.”

Careful now, thought Fulk. This Hunold did not keep his place at Yvian’s right hand through the weight of his sword arm alone. He must not be provoked too far, only shown that Verlaine was neither traitor nor dolt. “Estcarp has yielded tribute to our cape before.” Fulk smiled.

Hunold seeing that smile, shot an order at his men. “You, Marc, your cloak over her head!”

The woman had not moved, nor had she uttered any sound since they had brought her in. They might have been dealing with a soulless, mindless body. Perhaps she had been dazed by her close escape from the sea, rendered only half‑conscious by some blow from a reef rock. However, none of the men within Verlaine would relax vigilance because their prisoner did not scream, or beg, or struggle uselessly. As the folds of the cloak settled about her head and shoulders Fulk leaned forward in his chair once more and spoke, his words aimed at her rather than the men he seemed to address – hoping to wring some response from her that he might judge her state of awareness.

“Have they not told you either. Lord Commander, how one disarms these witches? It is a very simple – and sometimes enjoyable – process.” Deliberately he went into obscene detail.

Siric laughed, his hands curved to support his jerking paunch. Hunold smiled. “You of Verlaine do indeed have your more subtle pleasures,” he agreed.

Only the Lord Duarte remained quiet, his eyes bent upon the hands resting on his knees as he built and felled towers with his fingers. A slow, red‑brown flush spread up his thin cheeks beneath the close‑clipped old man’s beard.

There was no movement from the half‑shrouded figure, no sound of protest.

“Take her away,” Fulk gave the order, a small test of power. “Give her to the seneschal; he will keep her safe against our further pleasure. For to all pleasures there are a proper season.” He was now all the courteous host, secure in his position. “And now we have before us our Lord Duke’s pleasure – the claiming of his bride.”

Fulk waited. No one could have guessed the tension with which he listened for Hunold’s next words. Until Loyse stood before the altar in the seldom‑used chapel, her hands safely on the ax, the right words wheezed out by Siric, Hunold could cry off in his master’s name. But once Loyse was Lady Duchess of Karsten, if only in name, then Fulk was free to move along a path of his own, one carefully foremapped and long anticipated.

“Yes, yes,” Siric puffed and labored to his feet, his attention hastening to pull out the folds of his overcape. “The wedding – Must not keep the lady waiting, eh, Lord Duarte – young blood, impatient blood. Come, come, my lords – the wedding!” This was his part of the venture and for once that young, ice‑eyed upstart of a soldier could have no leading role. Far more fit and proper for Lord Duarte of the oldest noble line in Karsten to bear the ax and stand proxy for their overlord. That had been his own wise suggestion, and Yvian had thanked him for it warmly before they had ridden out of Kars. Yes, Yvian would discover… was discovering, that with the power of the Temple Brotherhood and the support of the old families, he would no longer have to listen to such rufflers as Hunold. Let this marriage be solemnized and Hunold’s sun would approach its setting!

 

It was cold. Loyse sped along the balcony of the great hall which was the heart of the keep. She had stood while the toasts were drunk, but she had not given lip service to their pious sentiments for happiness in her new life – happiness! Loyse had no conception of that. She wanted only her freedom.

When she slammed her door behind her, put in place the three bars which could withstand even a battering ram, she went to work. Jewels were stripped from throat, head, ear, finger, and thrown into a heap. Her long furred robe kicked aside. Until at last she stood before the mirror in a shawl, too excited to feel the cold seeping from the walls about her, her unbraided hair heavy on her shoulders, falling in a curtain cloak to her bare flanks.

Lock by lock she slashed at it ruthlessly with her shears, letting the long strands fall to the shawl. First to neck length, and then more slowly and awkwardly, to the cropped head one might naturally expect to see beneath a mail coif and helm. The tricks she had disdained to use at Bettris’ urging, she applied with careful concentration. A mixture of soot rubbed delicately into her pale brows, more used upon her short, thick lashes. She had been so intent upon the parts that she had not considered the whole. Now, stepping back a little from the shield mirror, she studied her reflection critically, more than a little startled at what she saw.

Her spirits soared; she was almost sure she could tramp into the great hall below and have Fulk unable to set name to her. The girl ran to the bed, began to dress in each garment she had prepared so well. Her weapon belt hitched smoothly around her waist and she was reaching for the saddle bags. But her hand moved slowly. Why was she so reluctant to see the last of Verlaine? She had walked through the ceremonies of the day hiding her purpose, holding it to her as a most precious possession. And she knew very well that the feast was the best screen she could hope to find to cover her flight. Loyse doubted if any sentry within or without the keep tonight would be overzealous on his guard duty – in addition she had a secret exit.

Yet something held her there, wasting important moments. And she had such a strong desire to return to the balcony overlooking the hall, to spy upon the feasters there, that she moved to the door without conscious volition.

What had the wench said? Someone was coming in on the wings of the storm – take your opportunity and use it well, Loyse of Verlaine! Well, this was her opportunity and she was prepared to use it with all the wisdom her life in Fulk’s house had forced her to develop.

Yet when she moved it was not to her private ways, of which Fulk and his men knew nothing, but to that door. And even while she fought impulse and such senseless recklessness, her hand slid back the bars and she was in the hall, the heels of her boots clicking on the steps which would take her to the balcony.

Just as the heat of the keep’s heart did not appear to rise to warm these upper regions, so did the noise below make only a clamor in which no voice, no stave of song, reached her as separate words. Men drank, they ate, and soon they would think of other amusements.

Loyse shivered, yet she still lingered, her gaze for the high table and those who sat there, as if it were necessary to keep some close check upon their movements.

Siric, who in the chapel of Verlaine had actually achieved a short measure of dignity – or perhaps it was his robes of office which had conferred that momentary presence upon his bloated body – was all belly once more, cramming into his mouth the contents of an endless line of dishes, though his tablemates had long since turned to their wine.

Bettris, who had no right to any seat there until Loyse had left – as well she knew – for Fulk capriciously insisted upon some observances of proper conduct, had been watching for her chance. Now, bedecked with that garish brooch from the treasure house, she leaned against the carved arm of her lover’s high seat ready for his attention. But, Loyse noted, her awareness of the whole scene heightened because she was a spectator only, Bettris also gave a sidewise, calculating glance now and again to Lord Commander Hunold. Just as she allowed a curved and dimpled white shoulder, artfully framed in the deep wine of her robe, to accent that surreptitous bid for regard.

Lord Duarte sat huddled in upon himself, occupying less than two‑thirds of his chair of state, staring into a goblet he held as if he read in its depths some message he would rather not know. The plain lines of his plum robe, the pinched meagerness of his old features, gave him the aspect of a mendicant in that lavish assembly, and he put on no pretense of one enjoying the festivities.

She must go – now! With leather and mail, and over it all the cloak of a traveler, making her a dusky shadow among many shadows past the discerning of winebleared eyes, she was safe for a space. And it was so cold, colder than when the rime of winter patterned walls, yet it was well into spring! Loyse took one step and then another before that voiceless order which had brought her there drove her back to the railing.

Hunold leaned forward to speak to her father. He was a well‑favored man; Bettris’ interest was to be expected. His fox face with a fox brush of hair was as vivid as Fulk’s for virile coloring. He made a quick gesture with his hands and Fulk voiced one of his great roars of laughter, the faint echoes of it reaching to Loyse’s ears.

But there was a sudden sharp dismay on Bettris’ face. She caught at Fulk’s oversleeve which lay across the chair arm, and her lips shaped some words Loyse could not guess. He did not even turn his head to look at her. His hand flailed up in a cuff to sweep her from his side, back from the table, so that she sprawled awkwardly into the dust behind their chairs.

Lord Duarte arose, putting down his goblet. His thin white hands with their ropy blue veins pulled at the wide fur collar of his robe, drawing it closer about his throat, as if he alone in that company felt the same chill which benumbed Loyse. He spoke slowly, and it was clear that he made some protest. Also, from the way he turned aside from the table, it was apparent that he did not expect any polite reply or agreement from his companions.

Hunold laughed and Fulk drummed his fist upon the table in a signal to the wine steward, as the oldest of the Duke’s deputies made his way among the tables of the lesser men on the floor below the dais to climb the stairs leading to his own apartment.

There was a flurry at the outer door of the hall. Men still fully armed and armored came in, and a path parted before them, leading to the dais. Some of the clamor died, fading as the guards tramped on, a prisoner in their midst. To Loyse it appeared that they hustled along a man, his hands bound behind his back. Though why they had also chosen to hide his head in a bag so that he staggered blindly in answer to their jerks at him, she could not guess.

Fulk threw out his arm, clearing a stretch of table between him and Hunold, sending flying Duarte’s goblet so that its dregs of contents splashed Siric, whose hot protests neither man chose to heed. From a pocket the Lord of Verlaine brought a pair of wager discs, tossing them into the air and letting them spin on the board before they flattened so their uppermost legend might be read. He pushed them to Hunold, offering the right of first throw.

The Lord Commander gathered them up, examined them with a laughing remark, and then threw. Both men’s heads bent and then Fulk took them up in turn to spin. Bettris, in spite of her rough rebuff, had crept forward, her eyes as fixed upon the spinning discs as were the men’s. When they flattened, she resumed her grasp on Fulk’s chair, as if the result of that throw had given her new courage, while Fulk laughed and made a mock salute to his guest.

Hunold arose from his seat and moved about the end of the table. Those about the prisoner widened their circle as he came down to front the blinded captive. He made no move to pull away the bag over the other’s head, but his fingers caught at the stained leather jerkin, busy with the latches holding it. With a pull he ripped it open to the waist and there was a shout from the company.

The Lord Commander transferred his grip to the captive woman’s shoulder as he faced the grins of the men. Then he displayed a strength surprising for his spare figure, and swung her over his shoulder, starting for the staircase. Fulk was not the only one to protest missing the planned amusement, but Hunold shook his head and went on.

Would Fulk follow? Loyse did not wait to see. How could she stand against Fulk – even against Hunold? And why out of all those who had been unwilling prey of Fulk and his men in the past should Loyse be moved to help this particular one? Though she fought against the knowledge that she must take a hand in this, her feet bore her on, constrained to act against her better judgment.

She sped to her own chamber once more, finding it far easier to run in her new guise than in the robes of her sex. Once more the triple door bars thudded into place, and she was shedding her cloak, paying no attention to the reflection in the mirror of a slight youth in mail. Then the reflection was distorted as the mirror became a door.

Only dark lay beyond. Loyse must depend upon her memory, upon the many explorations she had made since three years before when she had chanced upon this inner Verlaine which no one else within the pile seemed to suspect.

Steps; she counted aloud as she raced down them.

One passage at the bottom, a sharp turn into a second. She brushed her hand along the wall as a guide as she hurried, trying to picture the proper ways to her goal.

Once more steps, upward this time. Then a round of light on one wall, marking one of the spy holes – this must give on an occupied room. Loyse stood on tiptoe to peer within. Yes, this was one of the state bedchambers.

Lord Duarte, looking even more shrunken and withered without his overrobe with its wide fur collar, passed about the foot of the bed and stood before the fire, his hands held out to the blaze, his small mouth working as he chewed upon some bitter word or thought he could not spit away.

Loyse went on. The next spyhole was dark, the room where Siric was housed no doubt. She quickened pace to reach the last where a second circle of gold showed light. So sure was she of this that she fumbled for the catch of the secret entrance without looking.

Mutterings – the sound of a scuffle. Loyse pushed her full weight on the concealed spring. But here there had been no careful oiling, no reason to keep it workable. It stuck. Loyse backed around and put her shoulder against it, bracing her hands flat against the wall on the other side of the narrow passage and then exerting her strength, saving herself from falling as it burst open by catching at the edges of the opening.

She whirled about, her sword out with the snap of one who had practiced in secret and steadily. Hunold’s startled face fronted her from the bed where he fought to pin down his writhing victim. With the quick recovery and menace of a cat, he slid to the opposite side, abandoning his hold upon the woman, and sprang for the weapon belt hanging on the back of the nearest chair.

 

IV

THE INNER WAYS

 

Loyse had forgotten her new trappings and that Hunold might see in her another male come to spoil his sport. He had whipped out his dart gun, although she had sword in hand, his move being against age‑old custom. But his aim wavered ever so slightly between the invader and the woman on the bed, who, in spite of her bound hands, was wriggling her way toward him across the rumpled covers.

Moved by instinct more than plan, Loyse seized upon the outer robe he had discarded and tossed it at him, thus perhaps saving her life. For the thick cloth folds deflected his aim and the dart quivered in the bed post and not in her breast.

With a spate of oaths Hunold kicked at the tangle of cloth and swung upon the woman. She made no move to escape. Rather now she stood facing him with an odd calm. Her lips parted and an oval object dropped from between them, to swing on a short length of chain still gripped in her teeth.

The Lord Commander did not move. Instead his eyes traveled from one side to the other beneath his half‑closed lids, following the slow pendulous passage of that dull gem.

Loyse was around the foot of the bed now, only to pause at a scene which might have been part of a nightmare. The woman edged around, and Hunold, his eyes fast on the gem at her chin level moved after her. Now her bound arms were presented to Loyse, her body formed a partial barrier between girl and man.

Hunold’s eyes went left to right, and back, then, as the jewel quieted, he stood very still. His mouth opened slackly. There were beads of moisture forming along the edge of his hair line.

That drive which had brought her there, moving her about as a playing piece in some other’s game, still held Loyse. She drew the cutting edge of the sword across the cords binding the woman’s wrists, sawing through their cruel loops, freeing flesh which was ridged and purple. And when the last bit fell away the woman’s arms dropped heavily to her sides as if they could not obey her will.

Hunold moved at last. The hand which gripped the dart gun circled, but slowly as if great pressure bent it. His skin glistened with sweat, a pendulous drop gathered upon his loose lower lip, spun a thread as it fell to his heaving chest.

His eyes were alive, fiery with hate and rising panic. Yet, still that hand continued to turn, and he could not tear his gaze away from the dull jewel. His shoulder quivered. Loyse across the few feet of space which separated them could sense the agony of his fruitless struggle. He no longer wanted to slay; he wanted only escape. But for the Lord Commander of Kars there was no escape.

The end of that barrel touched the soft, unweathered white of his upper breast where his throat met the arch of his chest. He was moaning, very faintly, as might a trapped animal, before the trigger clicked.

Coughing out a spume of blood, released from the vise of will which had forced him to his death, Hunold staggered forward. The woman slipped lithely aside, pushing Loyse with her. He fell up against the bed and collapsed half upon it, his head and shoulders down, his knees upon the floor as one might kneel in petition, as his hands tore spasmodically at the covers.

For the first time the woman looked directly at Loyse. She made an effort to raise one of those puffed and horribly swollen hands to her mouth, perhaps to hold the stone. And when she could not, she sucked the jewel back between her lips, nodding imperatively at the opening in the wall.

Loyse was no longer so assured. All of her life she had heard of the magic of Estcarp. But those had been tales of far‑off things which did not demand full belief from the listener. The disappearance of the fleet along the reef the night before had been described to her by Bettris while she had been dressing for her bridal. But she had been so absorbed by her plans and fears at that moment that she had dismissed it all as a piece of great exaggeration.

What she had seen here was something which transcended all her ideas and she shrank from contact with the witch, stumbling ahead into the cavity of the ways, only wishing that she could or dared shut the other out with a safe wall between them. But the woman came readily after her with an agility which argued that she still had reserves of energy in spite of the rough handling she had known.

Loyse had no desire to linger with Hunold’s body. Nor was she sure that Fulk, cheated of his sport, might not burst in at any moment. But she snapped shut the hidden panel with the greatest reluctance. And shivered throughout her body as the other pawed at her with one of those useless hands for a guide. She looped her fingers in the belt which still held the witch’s ripped clothing to her body and drew her along.

They headed for her own chamber. There was so little time left. If Fulk followed the Lord Commander – if Hunold’s body servant chanced into that room – or if for some reason her father should seek her out–! She must be out of Verlaine before dawn, witch or no witch! And setting her mind firm upon that, she towed the stranger along the dark ways.

Only, when she stood once more in the light, Loyse could not be as callous as her sense of urgency dictated. She found soft cloth to wash and bind the raw grooves cut in the other’s wrists. And from her stores of clothing offered a selection to the other.

At last the witch mastered her body to the point where she was able to cup her hands beneath her pointed chin. She allowed the jewel to fall from her lips into that hold. Manifestly she did not want Loyse to touch it, nor would the girl have done so for less than her freedom.

“This about my neck please.” For the first time the other spoke.

Loyse caught the jewel’s chain, pulled open the catch and fastened it again beneath the ragged ends of hair which must have been cut as hastily and as inexpertly as her own – and perhaps for the same reason.

“Thank you, lady of Verlaine. And now, if you please,” her voice was husky as if it rasped through a dry throat, “a drink of water.”

Loyse held the cup to the other’s mouth. “Thanks from you to me are hardly necessary,” she returned with what boldness she could muster. “It would appear that you carry with you a weapon as potent as any steel!”

Over the rim of the cup the witch’s eyes were smiling. Loyse, meeting that kindliness, lost some of her awe. But she was still young, awkward, unsure of herself, sensations she resented bitterly.

“It was a weapon I could not use until you distracted the attention of my would‑be bedfellow, the noble Lord Commander. For it is one I dare not risk falling into other hands, even to save my own life. Enough of that–” She lifted her hands, examined the bandages about her wrists. Then she surveyed the disordered room, noting the shawl on the floor with its burden of sheared hair, the saddle bags on the coffer.

“It is not to your mind to travel to your bridegroom, my lady duchess?”

Perhaps it was the tone of her voice, perhaps it was her power compelling something within Loyse. But she answered directly with the truth.

“I am no duchess in Karsten, lady. Oh, they said the words over me this morning before Yvian’s lords, and afterwards they paid me homage on their knees.” She smiled faintly remembering what an ordeal that had been for Siric. “Yvian was none of my choosing. I welcome this wedding only to cover my escape.”

“Yet you came to my aid,” the other prompted, watching her with those great, dark eyes which measured until Loyse smarted under their gaze.

“Because I could not do otherwise!” she flared. “Something bound me here. Your sorcery, lady?”

“In a way, in a way. I appealed in my fashion to any within these walls who had the ability to hear me. It would appear that we share more than a common danger, lady of Verlaine, or,” she smiled openly now, “seeing that you have changed your guise for this outfaring, lord of Verlaine.”

“Call me Briant, a mercenary of blank shield,” Loyse supplied, having prepared for that days ago.

“And where do you go, Briant? To seek employment in Kars? Or in the north? There will be a demand for blank shields in the north.”

“Estcarp wars?”

“Say rather that war is carried to her. But that is another matter.” She stood up. “One which can be discussed at length once we are without these walls. For I am sure you know a road out.”

Loyse draped the saddle bags across her shoulder, drew the hood of her cloak over her uncrested helm. As she moved to turn off the light globes, the witch jerked at the shawl on the floor. Vexed at her own forgetfulness, the girl caught it and threw the strands of hair into the dying fire.

“That is well done,” the other commanded. “Leave nothing which could be used to draw you back – hair has power.” She glanced to the middle window.

“Does that give on the sea?”

“Yes.”

“Then lay a false trail, Briant. Let Loyse of Verlaine, die to cover it!”

It was the work of a moment to throw open that casement, to drop her fine bride robe just below. But it was the witch who bade her fasten a scrap of undergarment to the rough edge of the stone sill.

“With such an open door to face them,” she commanded,”I do not think they will seek too assiduously for other ways out of this chamber.”

Back they went through the mirror door, and now their path led down through the dark where Loyse urged that they hug the wall to the right and take the descent slowly. Under their hands that wall grew moist, and dank smells of the sea, tainted with an ancient rottenness, were thick in the air. Down and down, and now the murmur of the waves came faintly thrumming through the wall. Loyse counted step after step.

“Here! Now there is the passage leading to the strange place.”

“The strange place?”

“Yes, I do not like to linger there, but we shall have little choice. We must wait for the dawn light to guide us out.”

She crept on, fighting the building reluctance within her. Three times had she come that way in the past, and each time she had carried on this silent warfare with her own body as the field of battle. Again she knew that rise of brooding apprehension, that threat out of the dark promising more and worse than just bodily harm. But still she shuffled on, her fingers hooked in her companion’s belt, drawing her also.

Out of the blackness Loyse heard the heavy breathing, a catch of breath. And then the other spoke, in a faint whisper, as if there crouched near that which might overhear her words.

“This is a Place of Power.”

“It is a strange place,” Loyse repeated stubbornly. “I do not like it, but it holds our gate out of Verlaine.”

Though they could not see, they sensed they had come out of the passage into a wider area. Loyse caught a glimpse of a bright point of light overhead – the beacon of a star hung far above some rock crevice.

But now there was another faint gleam which brightened suddenly, as if some muffling curtain had been withdrawn. It moved through the air well above ground level – a round gray spot. Loyse heard a sing‑song chant, words she did not know. And that sound reverbrated in the curiously charged air of the space. As the light grew stronger she knew that it came from the witch’s jewel.

Her skin tingled, the air about them was charged with energy. Loyse knew an avid hunger – for what she could not have told. In her other visits to this place, the girl had been afraid and had made herself linger to control that fear. Now she left fear behind, this new sensation was one she could not put name to.

The witch, revealed in the light of the gem on her breast, was swaying from side to side, her face set and rapt. The stream of words still poured from her lips – petition, argument, protective incantation – Loyse could not have said which. Only the girl knew that they were both caught up in a vast wave of some energizing substance drawn from the sand and rock under their feet, from the walls about them, something which had remained asleep through long centuries to come instantly awake and aware now.

Why? What? Slowly Loyse made a complete turn, staring out into the gloom she could not pierce by eyepower. What lurked just beyond the faint pool of light the jewel granted them?

“We must go!” That came urgently from the witch. Her dark eyes were widely open, her hand moved clumsily to Loyse. “I cannot control forces greater than my own! This place is old, also it is apart from human kind and from the powers we know. Gods were worshiped here once, such gods as altars have not been raised to these thousand years. And there is a residue of their old magic rising! Where is your outer gate? We must try it while yet we can.”

“The light of your jewel–” Loyse shut her own eyes, pulling forth her memory of this place, as earlier she had used her memory of the other wall‑hidden ways. “There,” she opened them again and pointed ahead.

Step by step the witch moved in that direction and the light went with and around her as Loyse had hoped. Steps wide and roughly hewn, rounded by ages of time, loomed to their right. They led, Loyse knew, to a flat block with certain sinister grooves which lay directly under a break in the roof, so that at intervals light from the sun, or from the moon, bathed it in gold or silver.

Around that platform fashioned of broad steps, they crept on to the far wall. The light of the jewel caught the fall of earth which lay below Loyse’s gate. It would be risky to climb that tumble of stone and clay in this gloom, but she was impressed by the urgency of the witch.

The climb was as great a task as Loyse had feared. Though her companion made no complaint, she knew that to use those swollen hands must be torment. When and where she could the girl pushed and pulled the other, tensing together when the rubble shifted under their feet, threatening to plunge them both to the bottom once again. Then they were out, lying on coarse grass with the salt air about them, and a grayish glimmer in the sky telling them that the night was almost gone.

“Sea or land?” asked the witch. “Do you seek a boat along the shore, or do we trust to our two feet and head into the hills?”

Loyse sat up. “Neither,” she replied crisply. “This lies at the end of the pastures between the hold and the sea. At this season the extra mounts are turned loose to range here until they are needed. And in a hut near the gate is the horse gear of the rangers. But that may be under guard.”

The witch laughed. “One guard? Little enough to stand between two determined women and their desire this night, or rather this morning. Show me this hut with the horse gear and I shall make you free of it with no man the wiser thereafter.”

They went across the end of the pasture. The horses, Loyse knew, would be close to the hut, where block salt had been set out two days before the storm. The jewel had gone dead when they had emerged from the cavern and they had to pick their way carefully.

A lantern burned over the door of the hut and Loyse saw horses moving back and forth. The heavy war chargers bred to carry an armored man in battle did not interest her. But there were the rough coated, smaller mounts kept for hunting in the hills, able to withstand hardship and keep going far past the exhaustion point of the costlier animals Fulk fancied for his own riding.

Out into the circle of the lantern light moved two such ponies – almost as if her thought had called them. They seemed uneasy, tossing their heads until their ragged manes flopped on their necks, but they came. Loyse put down the saddle bags, whistling softly. To her delight the small horses came on, snuffling to one another, their forelocks looping over their eyes, with shaggy patches of their winter coats making them look dappled in the dim light.

If they would only prove tractable once she had the gear! She circled about them slowly and approached the hut. There was no sign of the guard. Could he have deserted his post for the feasting? It would be his death if Fulk discovered it.

Loyse pushed inward on the door and it creaked.

Then she was peering into a place which smelt of horses and oiled leather, yes, and of the strong drink the village people brewed of honey and herbs, which was enough to make even Fulk blink into sleep at the third tankard. A jug rolled on its side, away from the touch of her boot, and sticky stuff dribbled sluggishly from its mouth. The guardian of the pastures lay on a truss of straw snoring lustily.

Two bridles, two of the riding pads used by hunters and swift riding messengers. They were easy to lift from pegs and ledge. Then she was back in the field and the door pulled to behind her.

The horses remained docile as she bridled them and slapped on the pads, cinching them as tightly as she could. But when both women were mounted and on the upper trail which was the only way out of Verlaine, her companion asked for the second time:

“Where do you ride, blank shield?”

“The mountains.” Most of Loyse’s concrete plans had dealt only with the mechanics of her escape from Verlaine. Beyond this point where she now rode, equipped, mounted, she had foreseen little. To be free and out of Verlaine had seemed so impossible a happening, so difficult an achievement that she had bent all her wits to the solving of that, with little thought of what would happen after she gained the mountain trails.

“You say Estcarp wars?” She had never really thought of venturing through the wild band of outlaw territory between Verlaine and the southern border of Estcarp, but with one of the witches of that land as a riding companion it might now be the best choice of all.

“Yes, Estcarp wars, blank shield. But have you thought of Kars, lady duchess? Would you look upon your realm in secret and see what manner of a future you have tossed away?”

Loyse, startled, almost kneed her mount into a trot unsafe for the way they threaded.

“ Kars?” she repeated blankly.

Something in that worked in her mind. Yes, she had no mind to be Yvian’s lady duchess. But on the other hand Kars was the center of the southern lands and she might find a kinsman or two there if she needed help later. In so large a city a blank shield with money in his purse could lose himself. And should Fulk manage to discover something of her trail he would not think to search for her in Kars.

“Estcarp must wait yet awhile,” the other was saying. “Trouble stirs through the land. And I would know more of it, and of those who do the stirring. Kars is a starting point.”

She had been managed; Loyse knew that, but there was no feeling of outrage in her. It was rather that she had at long last found the end of a tangled cord, one which, if she dared to follow it through all its coils, would bring her where she had always wanted to be.

“We shall ride to Kars,” she consented quietly.

 


                                       

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