Witch World-6

PART IV: VENTURE OF GORM

 

I

THE RIVING OF THE BORDER

 

A column of smoke penciled into the air, broken by puffs as more combustible materials caught. Simon reined up on the rise to gaze back at the site of another disaster for the Karsten forces, another victory for his own small, hard‑riding, tough‑punching troop. How long their luck would hold, none of them could guess. But as long as it did, they would continue to blast into the plains, covering up the escape lines of those set‑faced, dark‑haired people from the outlands who came in family groups, in well armed and equipped bodies, or singly at a weaving pace dictated by wounds and exhaustion. Vortgin had done his work well. The old race, or what was left of it, was withdrawing over a border the Falconers kept open, into Estcarp.

Men without responsibilities for families or clans, men who had excellent cause to want to meet Karsten levies with naked blades, stayed in the mountains, providing a growing force to be led by Koris and Simon. Then by Simon alone, as the Captain of the Guard was summoned north to Estcarp to recommand there.

This was guerilla warfare as Simon had learned it in another time and land, doubly effective this time because the men under him knew the country as those sent gainst them did not. For Tregarth discovered that these silent, somber men who rode at his back had a queer affinity with the land itself and with the beasts and the birds. Perhaps they were not served as the Falconers were by their trained hawks, but he had seen odd things happen, such as a herd of deer move to muddle horse tracks, crows betray a Karsten ambush. Now he listened, believed, and consulted with his sergeants before any strike.

The old race were not bred to war, though they handled sword and gun expertly. But with them it was a disagreeable task to be quickly done and forgotten. They killed cleanly with dispatch and they were incapable of such beastliness as the parties from the mountains had come upon where fugitives had been cut off and captured.

It was once when Simon left such a site, white, controlling his sickness by will power alone, that he was startled by a comment from the set‑faced young man who had been his lieutenant on that foray.

“They do not do this of their own planning.”

“I have seen such things before,” Simon returned, “and that was also done by human beings to human beings.”

The other who had held his own lands in the back country and had escaped with his bare life from that holding some thirty days earlier, shook his head.

“Yvian is a soldier, a mercenary. War is his trade. But to kill in such ways is to sow black hate against a future reaping. And Yvian is lord in this land; he would not willingly rip apart his own holding and bring it to ruin – he is too keen‑witted a man. He would not give orders for the doing of such deeds.”

“Yet we have seen more than one such sight. They could not all be the work of only one band commanded by a sadist, or even two such.”

“True. That is why I think we now fight men who are possessed.”

Possessed! The old meaning of that term in his own world came to Simon – possession by demons. Well, that a man could believe having seen what they had been forced to look upon. Possessed by demons – or – the memory of the Sulcarkeep road flooded into his mind; possessed by a demon – or emptied of a soul! Kolder again?

From then on, much as it revolted him, Simon kept records of such finds, though never was he able to catch the perpetrators at their grisly work. He longed to consult with the witch, only she had gone north with Briant and the first wave of fugitives.

He launched through the network of guerrilla bands a request for information. And at nights, in one temporary headquarters after another, he pieced together bits and patches. There was very little concrete evidence, but Simon became convinced that certain commanders among the Karsten forces did not operate according to their former ways, and that the Duke’s army had been infiltrated by an alien group.

Aliens! As always that puzzle of inequality of skills continued to plague him. Questioning of his refugees told him that the energy machines which they had always known had come from “overseas” ages past: “overseas” energy machines brought by the Sulcar traders, adapted by the old race for heat and light, the Falconers also from “overseas” with their amazing communicators borne by their hawks. And the source of the Kolder was also “overseas” – a vague term – a common source for all?

What he could learn he dispatched by messenger to Estcarp, asking for anything the witches might have to tell in return. The only thing he was sure of was that as long as his own force was recruited from those of old race, he had no need to fear infiltration himself, for that quality which gave them kinship with the land and the wild things granted them in addition the ability to smell out the alien.

Three more false hawks had been detected in the mountains. But all had been destroyed in their capture and Simon had only broken bits to examine. Where they came from and for what purpose they had been loosed was a part of all the other mystery.

Ingvald, the Karstenian lieutenant, pushed up beside him now to look down upon the scene of destruction they had left.

“The main party with the booty is well along the hill track. Captain. We have plundered to some purpose this time, and with that fire laid to cross our trail, they will not even know how much has come into our hands! There are four cases of darts as well as the food.”

“Too much to supply a flying column.” Simon frowned, his mind snapping back to the business at hand. “It would seem that Yvian hopes to make a central post somewhere hereabouts and base his foray parties there. He may be planning to move a large force borderwards.”

“I do not understand it,” Ingvald said slowly. “Why did this all blow up so suddenly out of nothing? We are not – were not – blood brothers of the coastwise people. They drove us inland when they came from the sea. But for ten generations we have been at peace with them, each going our way and not troubling the other. We of the old race are not inclined to war and there was no reason for this sudden attack upon us. Yet when it came it moved in such a way as we may only believe that it had long been planned.”

“But, not, perhaps, by Yvian.” Simon set his horse to a trot matched by Ingvald’s mount so they rode knee to knee. “I want a prisoner, Ingvald, a prisoner of such a one as has been amusing himself in those ways we saw in the farm meadow of the fork roads!”

A spark gleamed deep in the dark eyes meeting his. “If such a one is ever taken. Captain, he shall be brought to you.”

“Alive and able to talk!” Simon cautioned.

“Alive and able to speak,” agreed the other. “For it is in our minds too, that things can be learned from one of that sort. Only never do we find them, only their handiwork. And I think that that is left deliberately as a threat and a warning.”

“There is a puzzle in this,” Simon was thinking aloud, playing once more with his ever‑present problem. “It would seem that someone believes we can be beaten into submission by brutality. And that someone or something does not understand that a man can be fired to just the opposite by those methods. Or,” he added after a moment’s pause, “could this be done deliberately to goad us into turning our full fury against Yvian and Karsten, to get the border aflame and all Estcarp engaged there, then to strike elsewhere?”

“Perhaps a little of both,” Ingvald suggested. “I know, Captain, that you have been seeking for another presence in the Karsten forces, and I have heard of what was found at Sulcarkeep and the rumors of man‑selling to Gorm. We are safe in this much: no one who is not truly human can come among us without our knowledge – just as we have always known that you are not of our world.”

Simon started, but turned to see the other smiling quietly. “Yes, Outlander, your tale spread – but after we knew you were not of us – though in some strange way your own akin to our blood. No, the Kolder cannot sneak into our councils so easily. Nor can the enemy venture among the Falconers, for the hawks would betray them.”

Simon was caught by that. “How so?”

“A bird or an animal can sense that kind of alien quicker than even one who has the Power. And those like now to the men of Gorm would find both bird and beast against them. So the Hawks of the Eyrie serve their trainers doubly and make safe the mountains.”

 

But before the day was behind them Simon was to learn that that vaunted safety of the mountains was only as strong as those frail bird bodies. They were examining the supplies looted from the train and Simon set aside a portion intended for the Eyrie, when he heard the hail of a camp sentry and the answer of a Falconer. Welcoming the chance to let the latter transport the hawkmen’s share and so save his men a trip, Simon came forward eagerly.

The rider had not followed custom. His bird‑head helm was closed as if he rode among strangers. It was not that alone which stopped Simon before he gave greeting. The men of his band were alert, drawing in a circle. Simon felt it, too, that prickle of awaking surmise, just as he had known it before.

Without stopping to reason, he hurled himself at the silent rider and his hands caught at the other’s weapon belt. Simon knew fleeting wonder that the hawk perched on the saddle horn did not rouse as he attacked its master. His lunge caught the Falconer by surprise and the fellow had no time to draw his arms. But he made a quick recovery, slumping his whole weight on Simon, bearing him under him to the ground, where mailed gloved hands tore for Tregarth’s throat.

It was like tangling with a steel‑muscled, iron‑fleshed thing, and within seconds Simon knew that he had attempted the impossible – what was encased in the Falconer’s covering could not be subdued with bare hands. Only he was not alone; other hands plucked that fighter off him, held the man pinned to the ground, though the stranger struggled wildly.

Simon, rubbing his scratched throat, got to his knees. “Unhelm!” He gasped the order, and Ingvald worked at the helm straps, jerking them free at last.

They gathered around the men who held the captive down, for his struggles did not stop. The Falconers were an inbred race with a dominate physical type – reddish hair and brown‑yellow eyes like their feathered servants. By his looks this was a true man of the breed. Yet Simon and every man in that clearing knew that what they held was no normal member of the mountain country.

“Rope him tight!” Simon ordered. “I think, Ingvald, we have found what we have been wishing for.” He went over to the horse which had carried the pseudo‑hawkman into their camp. The animal’s hide glistened with sweat, threads of foam spun at the bit hooks; it might have been ridden in a grueling race. And its eyes were wild, showing rims of white. But when Simon reached for the reins it did not try to escape, standing with a drooping head as great shudders moved its sweat‑soaked skin.

The hawk had remained quiet, no flap of wings or hissing beak to warn Simon off. He reached up and plucked the bird from its perch, and the minute his fingers closed upon that body he knew he did not hold a living creature.

With it in his hand he turned to his lieutenant. “Ingvald, send Lathor, Kara,” he named the two most accomplished scouts in his command. “Let them ride to the Eyrie. We must know how far the rot has spread. If they find no damage done there, let them give warning. For proof of their tale,” he stooped to pick up the bird helm of their prisoner, “let them take this. I believe it is of Falconer making, yet,” he walked over to the bound man, still silent, still watching them with eyes of mad hate,”I cannot quite believe that this is one of them.”

“We do not take him also?” asked Kam, “or the bird?”

“No, we open no doors which are not already breached. We need safe disposal for this one for a space.”

“The cave by the waterfall, Captain.” Waldis, a boy of Ingvald’s homestead who had tracked his master to the mountains, spoke up. “One sentry at the entrance can keep it safe and none know of it save us.”

“Good enough. You will see to it, Ingvald.”

“And you, Captain?”

“I am going to backtrail this one. It may be that he did ride from the Eyrie. If that is true, the sooner we know the worst the better.”

“I do not think so. Captain. At least if he did, it was not by any straight trail. We are well to the westward of the hold. And he entered from the path leading to the sea. Santu,” he spoke to one who had helped to rope the prisoner, “do you go and take outpost on this trail and send in Caluf who first challenged him.”

Simon threw the saddle on his own horse, and added a bag with rations. On top he thrust in the dummy falcon. Whether this was one of the counterfeit flying things, he could not tell as yet, but it was the first intact one they had. He finished just as Caluf ran in.

“You are sure he came from the west?” Simon pressed the question.

“I will swear it on the Stone of Engis if you wish, Captain. The hawkmen do not care greatly for the sea, though they serve the traders at times as marines. And I did not know they patrolled the shore cliffs. But he rode straight between those notched rocks which give upon the way to the cove we mapped five days ago, and he moved as one who knew the trail well.”

Simon was more than a little disturbed. The cove of their recent discovery had been a ray of hope for the establishment of better communication with the north. It was not endangered by reefs and shoals such as fanged too much of the coastline and Simon had planned for the use of small vessels to harbor there, transporting north refugees, and returning with supplies and arms for the border fighters. If that cove was in enemy hands he wanted to know it, and at once.

As he left the clearing, with Caluf and another riding behind him, Simon’s mind was again working on two levels. He noted the country about him with an alert survey for landmarks and natural features which might be used in future defensive or offensive action. But beneath that surface activity he was pushing under the constant preoccupation with safety, food, shelter – the job at hand – his own private concerns.

Once, in prison, he had had time to explore the depths within himself. And the paths he had hewn had been bleak, freezing him into a remoteness of spirit which had never thawed since that day. The give and take of barracks life, of companionship in field service he could assume as a cover, but nothing ate below that cover – or he had not allowed it to.

Fear he understood. But that was a transitory emotion which usually spurred him into action of one sort or another. In Kars he had been attracted in another way, and had fought free. Once he had believed that when he took Petronius’ gate he would be a complete man again.

But so far that was not true. Ingvald had spoken of demon possession, but what if a man did not possess himself?

He was always a man standing apart watching another occupied with the business of living. Alien – these men he led knew it in him. Was he another of the odd mistaken pieces strewn about this world, pieces which did not fit, one with the machines out of their time and the riddle of the Kolder? He sensed that he was on the brink of some discovery, one which would mean much to not only himself but to the cause he had chosen.

Then that second, prying, stand‑aside self was banished by the Captain of raiders as Simon caught sight of a branch of a tree, warped by mountain storms, as yet lacking leaves. It was stark against the afternoon sky and the burden it bore, dangling in small, neatly fashioned loops, was starker yet.

He spurred ahead and sat gazing up at the three small bodies swaying in the breeze, the gaping beaks, the glazed eyes, the dangling, crooked claws still bearing their bracelets of scarlet jesses and small, silvery discs. Three of the true falcons, their necks wrung, left to be found by the next traveler along the way. “Why?” Caluf asked.

“A warning, maybe, or something more.” Simon dismounted and tossed his reins to the other. “Wait here. If I am not back within a reasonable time, return to Ingvald and report. Do not follow, we cannot afford to waste men uselessly.”

Both men protested, but Simon silenced them with a decisive order before he entered the brush. There was evidence in plenty of those who had been there, broken twigs, scraps of boots on moss, a piece of torn jess strap. He was moving closer to the shore; the sound of the surf could be heard, and what he sought had certainly come from the cove.

Simon had been over that path twice, and he set himself to recall a mental picture of the country. Unfortunately the small valley which gave on the shore was lacking in cover. And the crags on either side were as bald. He would have to try one of those, which meant a roundabout route and some tough climbing. Doggedly he got to it.

As he had crept up to Volt’s Hole so did he travel now, crevice, ledge, hand and foothold. Then he crawled on his belly to the edge and looked down into the cove.

Simon had expected many things – a bare strip of sand with no sign of any invasion, a party from Karsten, an anchored ship. But what he saw was very different. At first he thought of the illusions of Estcarp – could what lay below be projected from his own mind, some old memory brought to life for his bafflement? Then a closer inspection of that sharp, clean curve of metal told him that, while it bore some faint resemblance to craft he had known, this was as different from anything in his previous experience as the counterfeit hawk was from the real.

The thing was clearly a sea‑going craft, though it had no sign of any superstructure, mast, or method of propulsion. Sharply pointed both fore and aft, it was shaped as might be a cross section, taken length‑wise, of a torpedo. There was an opening on its flat upper surface and men stood by that, three of them. The outline of their heads against the silver sheen of the ship were those of the Falconer bird helms. But Simon was equally sure no true Falconers wore them.

Once again the eternal mystery of this land, for the traders’ ships at Sulcarkeep had been masted vessels of a nonmechanical civilization; this ship could be taken out of the future of his own world! How could two so widely differing levels of civilization exist side by side?

Were the Kolder responsible here also? Alien, alien – once more he was on the very verge of understanding – of guessing–

And for that instant he relaxed his vigilance. Only a stout helm plundered from Karsten stores saved his life. The blow which struck at him out of nowhere dazed Simon. He smelled wet feathers, something else – half blinded and dizzy he tried to rise – to be struck again. This time he saw the enemy wing out to sea. A falcon, but true or false? That question he carried with him into the black cloud which swallowed him up.

 

II

TRIBUTE TO GORM

 

The throbbing beat of a pain drum filled his skull, shaking on through his body. At first, Simon, returning reluctantly to consciousness, could only summon strength enough to endure that punishment. Then he knew that the beat was not only inside him, but without also. That on which he lay shook with a steady rhythmic pound. He was trapped in the black heart of a tom‑tom.

When he opened his eyes, there was no light, and when he tried to move Simon speedily discovered that his wrists and ankles were lashed.

The sensation of being enclosed in a coffin became so overpowering that he had to clamp teeth on lips to prevent crying out. And he was so busy fighting his own private war against the unknown that it was minutes before he realized that wherever he might be, he was not alone in captive misery.

To his right someone moaned faintly now and again. On his left another retched in abject sickness, adding a new stench to the thick atmosphere of their confinement. Simon, oddly reassured by those sounds, unpromising as they were, called out:

“Who lies there? And where are we; does anyone know?”

The moaning ended in a quick catch of breath. But the man who was sick either could not control his pangs, or did not understand.

“Who are you?” That came in a weak trail of whisper from his right.

“One from the mountains. And you? Is this some Karsten prison?”

“Better that it were, mountain man! I have lain in the dungeons of Karsten. Yes, I have been in the question room of such a one. But better there than here.”

Simon was busy sorting out recent memories. He had climbed to a cliff top to spy upon a cove. There had been that strange vessel in harbor there, then attack from a bird which might not have been a bird at all!

Now it added up to only one answer – he lay in the very ship he had seen!

“Are we in the hands of the man‑buyers out of Gorm?” he asked.

“Just so, mountain man. You were not with us when those devils of Yvian’s following gave us to the Kolder. Are you one of the Falconers they snared later?”

“Falconers! Ho, men of the Winged Ones!” Simon raised his voice, heard it echo hollowly back from unseen walls.”How many of you lie here? I, whom am of the raiders, ask it!”

“Three of us, raider. Though Faltjar was borne hither limp as a death‑stricken man, and we do not know if yet he lives.”

“Faltjar! The guard of the southern passes! How was he taken – and you?”

“We heard of a cove where ships dared land and there was a messenger from Estcarp saying that perhaps supplies might be sent to us by sea if such could be found. So the Lord of Wings ordered us to explore. And we were struck down by hawks as we rode. Though they were not our hawks who battled for us. Then we awoke on shore, stripped of our mail and weapons, and they brought us aboard this craft which has no like in the world. I say that, who am Tandis and served five years as a marine to Sulcarmen. Many ports have I seen and more ships than a man can count in a week of steady marking, yet none kin to this one.”

“It is born of the witchery of Kolder,” whispered the weak voice on Simon’s right. “They came, but how can a man reckon time when he is enclosed in the dark without end? Is it night or day, this day or that? I lay in Kars prison because I offered refuge to a woman and child of the old race when the Horning went forth. They took all of us who were young from that prison and brought us to a delta island. There we were examined.”

“By whom?” Simon asked eagerly. Here was some one who might have seen the mysterious Kolder, from whom he might be able to get some positive information concerning them.

“That I cannot remember.” The voice was the merest thread of sound now and Simon edged himself as far as he could in his bonds to catch it at all. “They work some magic, these men from Gorm, so that one’s head spins around, spilling all thoughts out of it. It is said that they are demons of the great cold from the end of the world, and that I can believe!”

“And you, Falconer, did you look upon those who took you?”

“Yes, but you will have little aid from what I saw, raider. For those who brought us here were Karsten men, mere husks without proper wits – hands and strong backs for their owners. And those owners already wore the trappings they had taken from our backs, the better to befool our friends.”

“One of them was taken in his turn,” Simon told him. “For that be thankful, hawkman, for perhaps a part of the unraveling of this coil may lie with him.” Only then did he wonder if there were ears in those walls to listen to the helpless captives. But if there were, perhaps that one scrap of knowledge would serve to spread uneasiness among their captors.

There were ten Karsten men within that prison hold, all taken from jails, all caught up for some offense or other against the Duke. And to them had been added the three Falconers captured in the cove. The majority of the prisoners appeared to be semi‑conscious or in a dazed condition. If able to recall any of the events leading up to their present captivity, such recollections ended with their arrival at the island beyond Kars, or on the beach of the cove.

As Simon persisted in his questioning however, a certain uniformity, if not of background, then of offenses against the Duke and temperament among these prisoners began to emerge. They were all men of some initiative, who had had a certain amount of military training, ranging from the Falconers who lived in a monastic military barracks for life and whose occupation was frankly fighting, to his first informant from Kars, a small landowner in the outlands who commanded a body of militia. In age they were from their late teens to their early thirties, and, in spite of some rough handling in the Duke’s dungeons, they were all able‑bodied. Two were of the minor nobility with some schooling. They were the youngest of the lot, brothers picked up by Yvian’s forces on the same charge of aiding one of the old race who had been so summarily outlawed.

None of those here were of that race, and everyone declared that in all parts of the duchy men, women and children of that blood had been put to death upon capture.

It was one of the young nobles, drawn by Simon’s patient questioning from his absorption with his still unconscious brother, who provided the first bit of fact for the outworld man to chew upon.

“That guard who beat down Gamit, for which may the Rats of Morc forever gnaw him night and day, told them not to bring Renston also. We were blood brothers by the bread from the days we first strapped on swords, and we went to take him food and weapons that he might try for the border. They tracked us down and took us, though we left three of them with holes in their hides and no breath in their bodies! When one of the scum the Duke’s men had with him would have bound Renston too, he told it was no use, for there was no price for those of the old blood and the men buyers would not take them.

“The fellow whined that Renston was as young and strong as we and that he ought to sell as well. But the Duke’s man said the old race broke but they would not bend; then he ran Renston through with his own sword.”

“Broke but would not bend,” Simon repeated slowly.

“The old race were once one with the witchfolk of Estcarp,” the noble added. “Perchance these devils of Gorm cannot eat them up as easily as they can those of another blood.”

“There is this,” the man beside Simon added in his half‑whisper, “why did Yvian turn so quickly on the old race? They have left us alone, unless we sought them out. And those of us who companied with them found them far from evil, for all their old knowledge and strange ways. Is Yvian under orders to do as he did? And who gives such orders and why? Could it be, my brothers in misfortune, that the presence of those others among us was in some manner a barrier against Gorm and all its evil, so that they had to be routed out that Gorm may spread?”

Shrewd enough, and close to Simon’s own path of thought. He would have questioned still further but, through the soft moans and wordless complaints of those still only half conscious, he heard a steady hissing, a sound he strove hard to identify. The thick odors of the place would make a man gag, and they provided a good cover for a danger he recognized too late – the entrance of vapor into the chamber with a limited air supply.

Men choken and coughed, fought for air with strangling agony and then went inert. Only one thought kept Simon steady: the enemy would not have gone to the trouble of loading fourteen men in their ship merely to gas them to death. So Simon alone of that miserable company did not fight the gas, but breathed slowly, with dim memories of the dentist’s chair in his own world.

 

“… gabble… gabble… gabble…” Words which were no words, only a confused sound made by a high‑pitched voice – carrying with them the snap of an imperative order. Simon did not stir. As awareness of his surroundings returned, an inborn instinct for self‑preservation kept him quiet.

“… gabble… gabble… gabble…”

The pain in his head was only a very dull ache. He was sure he was no longer on the ship; what he lay upon did not throb, nor move. But he had been stripped of his clothing and the place in which he lay was chill.

He who spoke was moving away now; the gabble retreated without an answer. But so clearly had the tone been one of an order that Simon dared not move lest he betray himself to some silent subordinate.

Twice, deliberately, he counted to a hundred, hearing no sound during that exercise. Simon lifted his eyelids and then lowered them again quickly against a stab of blazing light. Little by little his field of vision, limited as it was, cleared. What he saw in that narrow range was almost as confounding as had been his first glimpse of the strange ship.

His acquaintance with laboratories had been small, but certainly the rack of tubes, the bottles and beakers on shelves directly before him could be found only in a place of that nature.

Was he alone? And for what purpose had he been brought here? He studied, inch by inch, all he could see. Clearly he was not lying at floor level. The surface under him was hard – was he on a table?

Slowly he began to turn his head, convinced that caution was very necessary. Now he was able to see an expanse of wall, bare, gray, with a line at the very end of his field of vision which might make a door.

So much for that side of the room. Now the other. Once more he turned his head and discovered new wonders. Five more bodies, bare as his own, were laid out, each on a table. All five were either dead or unconscious, and he was inclined to believe the latter was true.

But there was someone else there. The tall thin figure stood with his back to Simon, working over the first man in line. Since a gray robe, belted in at the waist, covered all of his, her, or its body, and a cap of the same stuff hid the head, Simon had no idea of race or type of creature who busied himself with quiet efficiency there.

A rack bearing various bottles with dangling tubes was rolled over the first man. Needles in those tubes were inserted into veins, a circular cap of metal was fitted over the unresisting head. Simon, with a swift jolt of pure fear, guessed that he was watching the death of a man. Not the death of a body, but that death which would reduce the body to such a thing as he had seen slain on the road to Sulcarkeep and had helped to slay himself in defense of that keep!

And he also determined that it was not going to be done to him! He tested hand and arm, foot and leg, moving slowly, his only luck being that he was the last in that line and not the first. He was stiff enough, but he was in full control of his muscles.

That gray attendant had processed his first man. He was moving a second rack forward over the next. Simon sat up. For a second or two his head whirled, and he gripped the table on which he had lain, prayerfully glad it had neither creaked nor squeaked under his change of position.

The business at the other end of the room was a complicated one, and occupied the full attention of the worker. Feeling that the table might tip under him, Simon swung his feet to the floor, breathing strongly again only when they were firmly planted on the smooth cold pavement.

He surveyed his nearest neighbor, hoping for some sign that he too, was rousing. But the boy, for he was only a youngster, lay limp with closed eyes, his chest rising and falling at unusually slow intervals.

Simon stepped away from the table toward that set of shelves. There alone could he find a weapon. Escape from here, if he could win the door unhindered, was too chancy a risk until he knew more of his surroundings. And neither could he face the fact that in running he would abandon five other men to death – or worse than death alone.

He chose his weapon, a flask half filled with yellow liquid. It seemed glass but was heavy for that substance. The slender neck above the bulbous body gave a good handhold, and Simon moved lightly around the line of tables to the one where the attendant worked.

His bare feet made no sound on the material on the flooring as he came up behind the unsuspecting worker. The bottle arose with the force of Simon’s outrage in the swing, crashing upon the back of that gray‑capped head.

There was no cry from the figure who crumpled forward, dragging with it the wired metal cap it had been about to fit on the head of the waiting victim. Simon had reached for the fallen man’s throat before he saw the flatness on the back of the head through which dark blood welled. He heaved the body over and pulled it free of the aisle between tables to look down upon the face of one he was sure was a Kolder.

What he had been building up in his imagination was far more startling than the truth. This was a man, at least in face, very like a great many other men Simon had known. He had rather flat features with a wide expanse of cheekbone on either side of a nose too close to bridgeless, and his chin was too small and narrow to match the width of the upper half of his face. But he was no alien demon to the eye, whatever he might house within his doomed skull.

Simon located the fastenings of the gray robe and pulled it off. Though he shrank from touching the mess in the cap, he made himself take that also. There was a runnel of water in a sink at the other end of the room and there he dropped the head gear for cleansing. Under the robe the man wore a tightfitting garment with no fastenings nor openings Simon could discover, so in the end he had to content himself with the robe for his sole clothing.

There was nothing he could do for the two men the attendant had already made fast to the racks, for the complicated nature of the machines was beyond his solving. But he went from one man to the next of the other three and tried to arouse them, finding that, too, impossible. They had the appearance of men deeply drugged, and he understood even less how he had come to escape their common fate, if these were his fellow prisoners from the ship.

Disappointed, Simon went to the door. The closed slab had no latch or knob he could see, but experimentation proved that it slid back into the right‑hand wall and he looked out upon a corridor walled, ceilinged and paved in the same monotone of gray which was in use in the laboratory. As far as Simon could see it was deserted, though there were other doors opening off its length. He made for the nearest of these.

Inching it open with the same caution with which he had made his first moves upon regaining his senses, he looked in upon a cache of men the Kolder had brought to Gorm, if this was Gorm. Lying in rows were at least twenty bodies, these still clothed. There were no signs of consciousness in any, though Simon examined them all hurriedly. Perhaps he could still gain a respite for those in the laboratory. Hoping so, he dragged the three back and laid them out with their fellows.

Visiting the laboratory for the last time Simon rummaged for arms, coming up with a kit of surgical knives, the longest of which he took. He cut away the rest of the clothing from the body of the man he had killed and laid him out on one of the tables in such a way that the battered head was concealed from the doorway. Had he known any method of locking that door he would have used it.

With the knife in the belt of his stolen robe, Simon washed out the cap and gingerly pulled it on, wet as it was. Doubtless there were a hundred deadly weapons in the various jars, bottles, and tubes about him, only he could not tell one from the others. For the time being he would have to depend upon his fists and his knife to remain free.

Simon went back to the corridor, closing the door behind him. How long would the worker he had killed be left undisturbed? Was he supervised by someone due to return shortly, or did Simon have a better allowance of time?

Two of the doors in the corridor would not yield to his push. But where the hall came to a dead end he found a third a little way open and slipped into what could only be living quarters.

The furniture was severe, functional, but the two chairs and the box bed were more comfortable than they looked. And another piece which might be either a desk or a table drew him. His puzzlement was a driving force, for his mind refused to connect the place in which he stood with the same world which had produced Estcarp, the Eyrie and crooked‑laned Kars. One was of the past; this was of the future.

He could not open the compartments of the desk, though there was a sunken pit at the top of each in which a finger tip could be handily inserted. Baffled, he sat back on his heels after trying the last.

There were compartments in the walls also, at least the same type of finger hole could be seen there. But they, too, were locked. His jaw set stubbornly as he thought of trying his knife as a prying lever.

Then he spun around, back against the wall, staring into a room still empty of all but that severely lined furniture. Because out of the very empty air before him came a voice, speaking a language he could not understand, but by the inflection asking a question to which it demanded an immediate answer.

 

III

GRAY FANE

 

Was he under observation? Or merely listening to something akin to a public address system? Once Simon had assured himself that he was alone in the room, he listened closely to words he could not understand and must interpret by inflection alone. The speaker repeated himself – at least Simon was convinced he recognized several sounds. And did that repetition mean that he was seen?

How soon before an investigation would be launched by the unseen speaker? Immediately, when no reply was made? It was clearly a warning to be on his way, but which way? Simon went back into the corridor.

Since this end of the passage was a blank wall he must try the other, re‑passing the other doors. But there again he met with unbroken gray surface. With memories of the hallucinations of Estcarp, Simon ran his hands across that blank expanse. But if there was any opening there it was concealed by more than eye‑confusing skill. His conviction – that the Kolder, who or whatever they might be, were of a different breed altogether from the witches, achieving their magic according to another pattern – became fixed. They based their action on skills without, rather than a Power within. To the men of Estcarp much of the technical knowledge of his own world would have ranked as magic. And perhaps alone among the Guards of Estcarp at this moment was Simon fitted to rationalize and partly understand what lay here in Gorm, better prepared to face those who used machines and the science of machines than any witch who could call a fleet up out of wooden ships.

He crept along the hallway, running his hands along first one wall and then the other, seeking any irregularity which might be a clue to an exit. Or did that door lie within one of the rooms? His luck certainly could not hold much longer.

Again from the air overhead came a ringing command in the strange tongue, the vehemence of which could not be denied. Simon, sensing danger, froze where he was, half expecting to be engulfed by a trapdoor or trapped in some suddenly materializing net.

In that moment he discovered his exit, but not in the way he had hoped, as on the other side of the corridor a portion of the wall slipped back to show lighted space beyond. Simon pulled the knife from his belt and faced that space, ready for an attack.

The silence was broken again by that bark of disembodied voice; he thought that perhaps his real status had not yet been suspected by the masters of this place. Perhaps, if they did see him, the robe and cap he wore tagged him as one of their own who was acting oddly and had been ordered to report elsewhere.

Deeming it best to act in his chosen role as long as he could, Simon approached that new door with more outward assurance and less commando caution. He nearly panicked, however, when the door closed behind him and he discovered that he was neatly imprisoned in a box. It was not until he brushed against one of the walls and felt through it that faint vibration, that he guessed he was in an elevator, a discovery which for some reason steadied him. More and more he accepted the belief that the Kolder represented a form of civilization close to that he had known in his own world. It was far more steadying to the nerves to be ascending or descending to a showdown with the enemy in an elevator than to stand, for example, in a mist‑filled room and watch a friend turn to a hideous stranger in a matter of moments.

Yet, in spite of that feeling of faint familiarity with all this, Simon had no ease, no relaxation of a certain inward chill. He could accept the products of Kolder hands as normal, but he could not accept the atmosphere of this place as anything but alien. And not only alien, for that which is strange need not necessarily be a menace, but in some manner this place was utterly opposed to him and his kind. No, not alien, one part of him decided during that swift journey to wherever the Kolder waited, but unhuman, whereas the witches of Estcarp were human, no matter whatever else they might also be.

The thrumming in the wall ceased. Simon stood away from it, unsure as to where the door would open. His certainty that it would open did not waver and was justified a moment later.

This time there were sounds outside, a muted humming, the snap of distant voices. He emerged warily to stand in a small alcove apart from a room. Partial recognition outweighed strangeness for him once again. A wide expanse of one wall was laid out as a vast map. The trailing, deeply indented shorelines, the molded mountain areas he had seen before. Set here and there upon the chart were tiny pinpoints of light in various colors. Those along the shore about the vanished hold of Sulcar and the bay in which Gorm lay were a dusky violet, while those which pricked on the plains of Estcarp were yellow, the ones in Karsten green, and those of Alizon red.

A table, running the full length of that map, stood below it, bearing at spaced intervals machines which clattered now and then, or flashed small signal lights. And seated between each two of such machines, with their backs toward him, their attention all for the devices they tended, were others wearing the gray robes and caps.

A little apart was a second table, or outsized desk, with three more of the Kolder. The center one of this trio wore a metal cap on his head from which wires and spider‑thread cables ran to a board behind him. His face was without expression, his eyes were closed. However, he was not asleep for, from time to time, his fingers moved with swift flicks of the tips across a panel of buttons and levers set in the surface before him.

Simon’s impression of being in a central control of some concentrated effort grew with the seconds he was left to view the scene undisturbed. The words which were barked at him this time did not come from the air, but from the man on the left of that capped figure. He gazed at Simon, his flat face with its overspread of upper features, displaying first impatience and then the growing realization that Simon was not one of his own kind. Simon sprang. He could not hope to reach that end table, but one of those who tended the machines before the map was in his range. And he brought his hand edge down in a blow which might have cracked backbone, but instead rendered the victim unconscious. Holding the limp body as a shield, Simon backed to the wall of the other doorway, hoping to win to that exit.

To his amazement the man who had first marked his arrival there made no move to obstruct him, physically. He merely repeated slowly and deliberately in the language of the continental natives:

“You will return to your unit. You will report to your unit control.”

As Simon continued his crabwise advance upon the door, one of the men who had been a neighbor of his captive returned an astounded face from Tregarth to the men at the end table, then back to Simon. The rest of his fellows looked up from their machines with the same surprise as their officer got to his feet. It was clear they had expected only instant and complete obedience from Simon.

“You will return to your unit! At once!”

Simon laughed. And the result of his response was startling indeed. The Kolder, with the exception of the capped man who took no notice of anything, were all on their feet. Those of the center table still looked to their two superiors at the end of the room as if awaiting orders. And Simon thought that if he had shrieked in agony they would not have been so amazed – his reaction to their orders had completely baffled them.

The man who had given that command dropped his hand on the shoulder of his capped companion, giving him a gentle shake, a gesture which even in its restraint expressed utmost alarm. So summoned to attention, the capped man opened his eyes and looked about impatiently, then in obvious amazement. He stared at Simon as if sighting at a mark.

What came was no physical attack, but a blow of force, unseen, not to be defined by the untutored outworlder. But a blow which held Simon pinned breathless to the wall unable to move.

The body he had been using as a shield slid out of his heavy‑weighted arms to sprawl on the floor, and even the rise and fall of Simon’s chest as he breathed became a labor to which he had to give thought and effort. Let him stay where he was, under the pressure of that invisible crushing hand, and he would not continue to live. His encounters with the Power of Estcarp had sharpened his wits. He thought that what trapped him now was not born of the body, but of the mind, and so it could only be countered by the mind in turn.

His only taste of such power had been through the methods of Estcarp and he had not been trained to use it. But setting up within him what strength of will he could muster, Simon concentrated on raising an arm which moved so sluggishly he was afraid he was doomed to failure.

Now that one palm was resting flat against the wall where the energy held him, he brought up the other. With complaining muscles as well as will of mind, he strove to push himself out and away. Did he detect a shade of surprise on the broad face below the cap?

What Simon did next had the backing of no conscious reasoning. It was certainly not by his will that his right hand moved up level with his heart and his fingers traced a design in the air between him and that capped master of force.

It was the third time he had seen that design. Before the hand which had drawn it was one of Estcarp, and the lines had burned fire bright for only an instant.

Now it flashed again, but in a sputtering white. And at that moment he could move! The pressure had lessened. Simon ran for the door, making good a momentary escape into the unknown territory beyond.

But it was only momentary. For here he faced armed men. There was no mistaking that rapt concentration in the eyes turned to him as he erupted into the corridor where they were on duty. These were the slaves of the Kolder, and only by killing could he win through.

They drew in with the silent, deadly promise of their kind, their very silence heavy with menace. Simon chose quickly and darted to meet them. He skidded to the right and tackled the man next to the wall about the shins, bringing him down in such a way as to guard his own back.

The smooth flooring of the passage was an unexpected aid. The impact of Simon’s tackle carried both past the man’s two companions. Simon stabbed up with his knife and felt the sear of a blade across his own ribs under his arms. Coughing, the guard rolled away, and Simon snatched the dart gun from his belt.

He shot the first of the others just in time and the stroke of the sword aimed for his neck sank instead into the wounded man. That brought him a precious second to sight on the third and last of the enemy.

Adding two more dart guns to his weapons he went on. Luckily this hall ended in no concealed doors but a stair, cut of stone and winding up against a wall also of stone, both of them in contrast to the smooth gray surfacing of the passages and rooms through which he had already come.

His bare feet gritted on that stone as they took the steps. At a higher level he came out in a passage akin to those he had seen in the hold of Estcarp. However functional‑futuristic the inner core of this place might be, its husk was native to the buildings he knew.

Simon took cover twice, his gun ready, as detachments of the Kolder‑changed natives passed him. He could not judge whether a general alarm had been given, or whether they were merely engaged in some routine patrol, for they kept to a steady trot and did not search any side ways.

Time in these corridors where there was no change of light had no meaning. Simon did not know whether it was day or night, or how long he had been within the fortress of the Kolder. But he was keenly conscious of hunger and thirst, of the cold which pierced the single garment he wore, of the discomfort of bare feet when one had always gone shod.

If he only had some idea of the inner plan of the maze through which he was trying to escape. Was he on Gorm? Or in that mysterious city of Yle which the Kolder had founded on the mainland coast? In some more hidden headquarters of the invaders? That it was an important headquarters he was certain.

Both a desire for a temporary hiding place and the need for supplies brought him to explore the rooms on this upper level. Here were none of the furnishings he had seen below. The carved wooden chests, the chairs, the tables were all of native work. And in some of the chambers there were signs of hurried departure or search, now overlaid with dust as if the rooms had been deserted for a long time.

It was in such a one that Simon found clothing which fitted after a fashion. But he still lacked mail or any other weapons than those he had taken from the fighters in the hall. He craved food more than anything else and began to wonder if he must return to the dangerous lower levels to find it.

Though he was considering descent Simon continued to follow up any ramp or set of steps he chanced upon. And he saw that in this sprawling pile all the windows had been battened tight so that only artificial light made visible his surroundings, the light being dimmer in ratio to the distance he put between him and the quarters of the Kolder.

A last and very narrow flight of stairs showed more use and Simon kept one of the guns ready as he climbed to a door above. That swung easily under his hand, and he looked out upon a flat rooftop. Over a portion of this a second sheltering awning had been erected and lined up under which were objects which did not astonish Simon after what he had seen below. Their stubby wings were thrust back sharply from their blunt noses and none could carry more than a pilot and perhaps two passengers, but they were surely aircraft. The mystery of how Sulcarkeep had been taken was solved, providing the enemy had a fleet of those to hand.

Now they presented Simon with a way of escape if he had no other chance. But escape from where? Watching that improvised hangar for any sign of a guard, Simon stole to the nearest edge of the roof, hoping to see something in the way of a landmark to give him a clue to his whereabouts.

For a moment he wondered if he could be back in a restored Sulcarkeep. For what was spread below was a harbor, with anchored ships and rows of buildings set along streets which marched to the wharves and the water. But the plan of this city was different from the town of the traders. It was larger and where the Sulcarmen had had their warehouses with fewer living quarters, these streets reversed that process. Though it was midday by the sun there was no life in those streets, no sign that any of the houses were inhabited. Yet neither did they show those signs of decay and nature’s encroachment which would mark complete desertion.

Since the architecture resembled that of Karsten and Estcarp with only minor differences, this could not be that Yle erected by the Kolder. Which meant that he must be now on Gorm – maybe in Sippar – that center of the canker which the Estcarp forces had never been able to pierce!

If that city below was as lifeless as it appeared, it should be easy enough for him to get to the harbor and locate some means of boat transportation to the eastern continent. However with the building below him so well sealed to the outer world, perhaps this roof was the only exit, and he had better explore its outlets.

The pile on which he stood was the highest building in the whole small city; perhaps it was the ancient castle where those of Koris’ clan had ruled. If the Captain were only with him now the problem might be simplified by half. Simon toured three sides and discovered that there were no other roofs abutting on this one, that a street, or streets, fronted each side.

Reluctantly he came to the shelter which housed the planes. To trust to a machine he did not know how to pilot was foolhardy. But that was no reason not to inspect one. Simon had grown bolder since he had gone unchallenged this long. However he took precautions against surprise. Wedged into the latch of the door, the knife locked it to all but a battering down.

He returned to the plane nearest him. It moved into the open under his pushing, proving to be a light craft, easily handled. He pulled up a panel in its stub nose and inspected the motor within. It was unlike any he had seen before, and he was neither engineer nor mechanic.

But he had confidence enough in the efficiency of those below to believe that it could fly – if he were able to control it.

Before he explored farther Simon examined the four other machines, using the butt of one of the dart guns to smash at their motors. If he did have to trust to the air he did not want to be the target for an attack‑chase.

It was when he raised his improvised hammer for the last time that the enemy struck. There had been no battering at the wedged door, no thunder of guard feet on the stairs. Again it was the silent push of that invisible force. It did not strive to hold him helpless this time, but to draw him to its source. Simon caught at the disabled plane for an anchor. Instead he drew it after him out into the open – he could not halt his march down the roof.

And it was not taking him back to the door! With a stab of panic Simon realized now that his destination was not the dubious future of the levels below, but the quick death which awaited a plunge from the roof!

With all his will he fought, his reluctant steps taken one at a time, with periods of agonizing struggle between. He tried again the trick of the symbol in the air which had served him before. Perhaps because he was not now fronting the person of his enemy it gave him no relief.

He could slow that advance, put off for seconds, minutes, the inevitable end. A try for the doorway failed; it had been a desperate hope that the other might take his action for a gesture of surrender. But now Simon knew they wanted him safely dead. The decision he would have made had he commanded here.

There was the plane he had meant to use in a last bid. Well, now there was no other escape! And it was between him and the roof edge towards which he was urged.

It was such a little chance, but he had no other.

Simon yielded two steps to the pressure, he gave another quickly as if his strength were waning. A third – his hand was on the opening to the pilot’s compartment. Making the supreme effort in this weird battle he threw himself within.

The pull brought him against the far wall and the light craft rocked under his scrambling. He stared at what must be the instrument board. There was a lever up at the end of a narrow slot, and it was the only object which seemed to be movable. With a petition to other Powers than those of Estcarp, Simon managed to raise a heavy hand and pull that down its waiting slot.

 


                                       

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