Andre Norton - Web of the Witch World
Web of the Witch World
1 GAUNTLET THROWN
IN THE NIGHT there had been a storm with great gusts of angry wind to batter ancient walls, aim spearthrusts of rain at the window slits of the chamber. But its violence had been reduced to a sullen mutter outside the South Keep. And Simon Tregarth had found that mutter soothing.
No, this was no troubling of nature—the raw nature man must fight and subdue for his own survival. It was a very different unease he felt as he lay in the early morning, awake and aware as a sentinel listening to sounds beyond his post.
Chill sweat gathered in his armpits, beaded dankly on his slightly hollowed cheeks and square jaw. Gray light overtook the room shadows, there was no sound, but—
His hand went out tentatively before he consciously thought. Nor did he entirely realize that he was yielding to an emotion which he still found new and hard to understand. This was an instinctive appeal for comradeship and support against—what? He could set no name to the uneasiness which held him.
Fingers met warm flesh, cupped on soft skin. He turned his head on the pillow. The lamp was unlit, but there was wan light enough to see his bedfellow. Open, watchful eyes met his fearlessly, but their depths were shadowed by a twin to the anxiety growing in Simon.
Then she moved. Jaelithe, she who had been a witch of Estcarp, and was now his wife, sat up abruptly, the black silk of her hair pulling from beneath his cheek to cloak her shoulders, her hands folded over her small high breasts. She no longer gazed at him, but searched the room, open to their sight since the midsummer mildness had led to the bed hangings being looped up for the free passage of night breezes.
The strangeness of that chamber came and went for Simon. Sometimes the present was a dream, ill-rooted and illusory, when he thought of the past. At other times it was the past which had no part of him at all. What was he? Simon Tregarth—disgraced ex-army officer, a criminal who had fled the vengeance of wolves beyond the law, who had taken the final step of the perfect escape known to that evil world—the “gate.” Jorge Petronius had opened it for him—an age-old stone seat rumored to take any man daring enough to sit in it to a new world, one where his talents would make him at home. That was one Simon Tregarth.
Another lay here and now in the South Keep of Estcarp, March Warder of the south, sworn to the service of the Women of Power; he had taken to wife one of the feared witches of the age-sombered land of Estcarp. And this was one of the times when the present annulled the past—when he crossed a border he could not describe into a firmer union with the world he had so abruptly entered.
Sharp as any sword thrust into his flesh was that throb, breaking through his momentary wonder concerning himself and what he was doing here. He moved as quickly as Jaelithe had earlier, sitting up so that their shoulders brushed, and in his hand was a dart gun. But even as Simon brought that out from under his pillow, he knew the folly of his action. This was not a call to battle, but a clarion summons far more subtle and, in its way, more terrifying.
“Simon—” Jaelithe’s voice was shaken, higher than usual and a little unsteady.
“I know!” He was already sliding over the edge of the wide bed, his feet meeting the first step of the dais which supported it above the floor of the chamber, his hands reaching for the garments left on the chair beyond.
Somewhere—either in the pile of the South Keep or near thereto—was trouble! His mind was already busy with the possibilities. A raid by sea from Karsten? He was certain no party from the duchy could have won through the mountains, not when all that country was patrolled by the Falconers of the heights and his own Borderer companies. Or was it some slash-and-go attempt on the part of Alizon, operating by sea? Their sullen unrest had been apparent for months. Or—
Simon’s hands did not slack speed in pulling on boots or fastening belt, though his breath came a little faster as he thought on the third and worst possibility—the chance that Kolder was not crushed, that the evil—alien to this world in the same way he was alien—stirred again, moved, lapped closer to them.
In the months since that ruthless enemy had struck and been repulsed, since the Kolder stronghold on the island of Gorm had been taken and cleansed and their supported rising in Karsten failed, they had gone. Nothing stirred from their dark hold of Yle, though none of the Estcarp forces could break through the barrier which locked that cluster of towers from approach by sea or land. Simon, for one, did not believe that the defeat in Gorm had finished the Kolder threat. That would not be done with until the aliens were traced to their overseas stronghold and the nest there destroyed with the vipers in it. Such a move could not be made as yet—not while Karsten smoldered to the south or Alizon remained a battle hound hardly in check in the north.
He was listening now, not only with the sense he could not have named which had warned him out of sleep, but with his ears for the warning tocsin on the tower above. The Borderers who manned this keep were not to be taken unawares. Surely by now the alarm should be booming, vibrating through the stone of the walls!
“Simon!” The summons was so sharp and imperative that he swung around, weapon once again in his hand. Jaelithe’s face was pallid in this half-light, but her lips were unnaturally tight against her teeth. It might have been fear which lighted her eyes so—or was it? A soft crimson robe was clutched about her, held negligently by one hand. She had not put her arms into its wide sleeves and it dragged along the floor as she came around the end of the bed to him, walking stiffly as if in her sleep. But she was awake, very much awake, and that was not fear moving her.
“Simon—I—I am whole!”
It hit him, worse than the summons, with a hurt which registered deep, and which would grow and hurt the more; he sensed this fleetingly. So—it had meant that much to her? That she felt herself maimed, lessened by what had been between them. And another part of Simon, less troubled by emotion, arose to defend her. Witchdom had been her life. As all her sisterhood she had had pride of accomplishment, joy in that usage; yet she had willingly set aside, so she thought, all that when she had come to him, believing that in their uniting of bodies she would lose all which meant so much to her. And his second thought was so much the better one!
Simon held out his hand, though he longed to take her wholly into his arms. And her new joy which blazed from every part of her, as if a fire were lit deep within her skin, bones, and flesh, warmed him also as their clasp went tight, fingers locking about fingers. “How—?” he began, but she interrupted him.
“It is with me still—it is! Oh, Simon, I am not only woman, but also witch!”
Her other hand dropped its hold on her robe so that the folds collapsed on the floor about her feet. Her fingers went to her breast, seeking what she no longer wore—the witch jewel she had surrendered at her wedding.
A little of that bright look faded as she realized she no longer possessed that tool through which the energy which filled her now could work. Then, with her old-time quick reaction to fact, she broke clasp with Simon and stood, her head slightly atilt, as if she too, listened.
“The alarm has not sounded.” Simon stooped to gather up the robe and wrap her in it.
Jaelithe nodded. “I do not think this is an attack. But there is trouble—evil—on the move.”
“Yes, but where—and what?”
She still stood in the attitude of one listening, but this time Simon knew that she did not hear audibly, but sensed some wave reaching directly to her mind. He felt it, too, that uneasiness which was fast heightening into a push to action. But what kind of action, where, against who, or what?
“Loyse!” A whisper. Jaelithe whirled and made for the coffer which held her clothing. She was dressing with the same haste as Simon had. But not in the robes of her household faring. What she burrowed deep to find was the soft leather which went under chain mail, the clothing of one riding on a foray.
Loyse? Simon could not be so sure, but he accepted her word without question. There were four of them, oddly assorted—four fighters for the freedom of Estcarp, for their own freedom from the evil which Kolder had sown so far in what had once been a fair world.
Simon Tregarth, the alien from another world; Jaelithe, the Witch of Estcarp; Koris, exiled from Gorm before its fall into darkness, Captain of the Guard and then Seneschal and Marshal of Estcarp; and Loyse, the Heiress of Verlaine, a castle of wrecker lords on the coast. Fleeing a marriage with Yvian of Karsten, she had brought Jaelithe out of Verlaine, and together they had wrought subtly in Kars for the undoing of Yvian and all that he stood for. Loyse, wearing hauberk, carrying sword and shield, had joined in the attack on Gorm. And in the citadel of Sippar had pledged herself to Koris. Loyse, the pale, small girl who was indeed a warrior strong and brave beyond most counting. And this sending dealt with danger for Loyse!
“But she is at Es Castle—” Simon protested, as he pulled on mail to match that which now clinked softly in Jaelithe’s hands. And Es Castle was the heart, if the enemy had dared to strike there—!
“No!” Again Jaelithe was positive. “There is the sea—in this there is the sea.”
“I do not feel him, not in this. If I only had the jewel!” She was tugging on riding boots. “It is as if I tried to track a drifting mist. I can see the drift, but nothing is clear. But Loyse is in danger and the sea is part of it.”
“Kolder?” Simon put into words his deepest fear.
“No. There is not the blankness of the Kolder wall. But the need for help is great! We must ride, Simon—west and south.” She had turned a little, her eyes now focused on the wall as if she could really see through it to the point she sought.
“We ride.” He agreed.
The living quarters of the keep were yet silent. But as they sped together down the hallway to the stair they heard the sounds of the changing guard. Simon called, “Turn out the Riders!”
His words echoed hollowly, but carried, to be answered by a startled exclamation from below. Before he and Jaelithe were halfway down the stairs, Simon heard the piping of the alert.
This garrison was well prepared for sudden sallies.
Through spring and summer the alarm had sounded again and again to set the Borderers loose along the marches. Those who made up the striking force Simon commanded were largely recruited from the fugitive Old Race. Driven out of Karsten when the massacre orders of Kolder were given, they had many causes to hate the despoilers and murderers who now held their lands and who came, in quick stab raids, to try the defenses of Estcarp, the last home of that dark-haired, dark-eyed race who carried ancient wisdom and strange blood, whose women had witch power and whose men were dour, stinging wasps of fighters.
“No beacon, Lord—”
Ingvald, Simon’s second in command from the old days’ when they had fought, rode and fought again in the high hills, waited him in the courtyard. It was Jaelithe who answered.