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Flight of Vengeance
Witch World: The Turning Book Two
By Andre Norton, P.M. Griffin
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 Andre Norton, Ltd.
All rights reserved.
Tarlach bent low in the saddle to cut the drag of the wind as much as possible, and cradled the still form of the probably dying woman more tightly against him.
He had been riding like this for two days, nearly three now, not stopping for food or drink or rest save only for the few seconds necessary to change mounts when the horse under him could bear its human burden no longer.
His mind was so cloaked in a numbing fog of weariness and fear that he should not rightly have been able to say how long he had been galloping thus, whether for hours or weeks, had the need for accurate reporting later not kept burning every detail into his memory with all the searing force of a brand, that and stark terror. The sight of that boulder ripping suddenly down the seemingly stable mountainside to strike the Holdruler of Seakeepdale would not leave him soon.
It had not pinned the Lady Una beneath it—nothing could have survived that even momentarily—but it had hit her and hit her hard. When he and his comrades had reached her, it was obvious that she had been broken inside. She still lived, but she would not recover, not with the cursory care they were able to provide.
His heart twisted again even as it had in that moment. Those Witches! Those thrice-accursed Witches! They had saved Estcarp, right enough, with their turning of the mountains, but they had riven and twisted the life of those highlands themselves, they had destroyed the Falconers' Eyrie, which had been their pride and whose loss might prove their end as a people, and now they had reached into the future and slain the lady he secretly loved in defiance of all his kind's custom, the lady with whom he was allied in most urgent cause, no less than an effort, maybe the last possible, to save his race from extinction.
He gripped himself once more, as he had been forced to do throughout this nightmare race. They had come here to Estcarp for that purpose, and they had been crossing these still treacherous mountains in pursuit of knowledge, of any sort of information, that might help convince the commanding Falconer officers—and the shunned, ever-feared women—of the stark necessity of the disturbing course he proposed. Lormt, the repository of ancient lore which was their goal, was relatively close to the place where the accident had occurred. He had followed his kind's usual custom and had held himself so much aloof from most of its residents during his time there that he could not even say if it could supply the help she needed, but reason declared that a community of that size was bound to have a healer associated with it, and so he had begun this ride in challenge to the Grim Commandant. While Una of Seakeep lived, while there was any chance at all that healing could benefit her, he would not give over or waver in his war to win her life.
With that determination, he had flung himself into his saddle, taking the woman up before him and fastening her stallion's rein to his wrist, knowing a second mount would be needed to spell Lady Gay when she began to tire.
He expected the rest of their small escort to follow after at a saner pace and had been surprised to see Brennan, his chief Lieutenant, leap into the saddle as well, also seizing another horse to serve him as Eagle's Brother would Tarlach. His commander did not attempt to gainsay him. Dangerous beasts and even more deadly men were reputed to roam these Witch-blighted lands, and with his arms thus encumbered, he would be able to offer no ready defense should they be challenged.
Three others shared the race with them—the falcons Storm Challenger and Sunbeam and the cat Bravery, who was to Una of Seakeep all that the fighting birds were to the men, although none knew that save only the woman herself and he. As the birds sat the perches designed for their use on their comrades' saddles, so did Bravery ride the seat made for her, a high-sided pad set behind Una's saddle.
There had been no refusing any of these, either. The bond joining them to their chosen humans was such that they would not be parted from them for so little cause as the discomfort and difficulty inherent in such a journey. Bravery particularly would not have remained behind, realizing as she did all too well that she might never feel that beloved hand stroke her thick tortoiseshell fur again.
The two men scarcely spoke during the long hours of riding as they threw all their concentration into the effort of winning more and ever more speed from their jaded horses, despite the rugged mountainland through which they traveled.
Suddenly, Brennan called out to him. His gelding had stumbled in his weariness and could carry him no farther.
Tarlach drew rein. Lady Gay was nigh unto blown herself again. They needs must change mounts yet another time.
The Lieutenant dismounted first and hurried to take the Daleswoman from his commander so that she should suffer as little jarring as possible during the exchange.
Tarlach hastened to Eagle, but before he could mount, all the world seemed to spin around him, and he staggered against the stallion.
He kept his feet but was forced to lean heavily upon the animal for support. His eyes closed as he fought to regain control of his senses.
Strong hands gripped him.
"Come, Tarlach. We can rest now."
"We need it, and the Lady must have it."
He yielded to that and allowed himself to be lowered to the ground.
It was several minutes before the reeling slowed and then stopped. After waiting a few seconds longer to be certain the world would remain steady, he sat up. His comrade was kneeling beside Una. He saw him use the edge of his cloak to wipe the pink foam from her lips.
"How does she?"
Brennan turned. "She is not greatly worse."
"But worse all the same?"
The Falconer leader's head lowered at his answering nod. He had not been able to do even this much for her....
His comrade left Una and took the water flask from his saddle. This he brought to the Captain.
"She does not suffer.—Drink this. Lack of water is partly what is affecting us."
Tarlach drained nearly half the container before he took it from his lips. The liquid was both a pleasure and a torment as it worked upon his dry mouth and throat, and he wondered how it had been possible for him to have been all but unaware of such thirst until now.
He returned the flask and then smiled wanly at his comrade. "I am affected. You seem almost untroubled."
That was not quite the truth. The Lieutenant's face was strained and white, and his eyes burned red from windlash and lack of rest, but his shoulders were still unbent, his movements still sure and strong. So much could not be said for himself.
"I am weary enough, my friend. It is just that I have borne no weight as yet."
He eyed his companion shrewdly. "Let me take the Lady from you. Your arms must be nigh unto numb by now."
"I can hold," the other answered stiffly.
He softened almost in the same breath. "I do not snarl at you, Brennan," he apologized, "but the guarding of us must remain with you. No Falconer officer should have to confess this, but I am not capable of it."
His comrade sighed in his heart. That last was all too obvious. "So let it be, then."
Tarlach would delay no longer. He mounted and took Una of Seakeep into his arms once more.
He looked into her face. She was so still, as if every part of her will and what remained of her strength were concentrated in the awful battle she waged to draw yet another lungfull of air into her torn body.
"Hold a little longer, my own Lady," he whispered to her, although he knew she was beyond hearing. "Hold only a little longer. We are very near now if we have not strayed from our trail in our haste. Soon, this torment, at least, will be ended for you."CHAPTER 2
The two mercenaries rode steadily for another hour before entering upon a down-sloping trail that ended at the foot of a gentle hill. This they crested and found themselves in a narrow valley looking up at a strange keep, or what once might have been a keep. It, like the mountains around it, had suffered greatly in the Turning and its aftermath.
Of the four towers which had once guarded it, only two and part of a third remained. The fourth was gone, as were two of the walls that had stretched between them. One had merely crumbled. The other and the missing tower had literally been sheared away when the ground had dropped from under them. The rubble—or some of it since a great part of the remains had probably been taken for rebuilding here and elsewhere in the area—now lay at the bottom of what was a respectable cliff bank.
One of the surviving walls held the formal gate. A path, not much worn but relatively clear, led up to it, and Tarlach turned his weary mount upon it.
Their approach had apparently been observed by someone astute enough to note the fact that the leading horseman was riding encumbered. At least, he could see two with a hand litter standing among those who had poured from the readily opened gate to receive them.
Only when he reached them did Tarlach draw rein.
"There is a healer here?" he demanded harshly. "One of our party has need...."
"I am a healer," the woman standing nearest those holding the litter answered quickly. He recognized her with some surprise as the one who had charge of the materials he was studying. "Let my aides take him, Bird Warrior."
The two young bearers, both wearing the dress of either field hands or tradesmen, came to him, and he lowered the unconscious Holdlady into their waiting arms.
They were gentle despite their rough appearance when they placed her on the litter.... Lormt's healer, who was of Estcarp's ancient race, knelt beside her patient. She was quick to cover herself, but he had anticipated and so did not miss her start of amazement when she discovered that she was attending, not a man, but a female. She had the grace not to remark on that fact or make any greater display of her surprise. Perhaps that fact was truly of very small significance to her in the face of the more immediate matters claiming her attention.
Speaking quickly, tersely, in response to her question, the Falconer described the accident that had struck Una down and detailed as best he could the extent of her injuries, then gave an account of his race to bring her here so that the Wise Woman or Witch or whatever she was might be able to judge the effect wrought by the strenuous journey.
The Captain was not aware of the look those listening bent upon him. He watched the bearers lift the litter and carry it inside, knowing in the depth of his heart and mind that he was not likely to see Una of Seakeep again, not as a living woman. His head lowered, and all the weight of weariness and hopelessness settled on him.
It was over. He had done all that had been in his power to do. Now Una's fate lay in other hands, in those of these strange, scholarly folk and in those of the Great Ones who commanded life and death.
He gripped himself. He could not give way, not yet. Tarlach's head raised again, and he dismounted, moving slowly, almost as if he struggled against water. His body seemed to be in rebellion against him, fighting every command to further action.
The mercenary leader faced those gathered around him, giving them his attention for the first time.
One whom he knew well immediately caught his notice, a tall man whose silver hair proclaimed a long expanse of years behind him. There was nothing weary or decayed in his gray eyes, however, and his stance was that of a young man, straight, with the pride of purpose and accomplishment. As for the rest, his appearance was that of an aged individual, frail but still sound in mind and health. His skin was unwrinkled but was pale, transparent almost, and looked as if a breath would cause it to tear or bruise. He was thin in face and body, and the hand he raised in greeting was corded with blue veins. His features were pleasant now and might once have been handsome; his expression was alert, incisive, and kind. His clothing was gray and was little different in character from that worn by a laborer in field or craft, although Ouen was head of the Lormt community. Little else was readily available here, and none of the others around him sported anything very different or richer.
Another well familiar to the Falconer stood beside him, a much younger man, also of the Old Race and also tall and thin. Duratan's dress was like that of the older scholar save for its brown color, but his bearing was that of a soldier, one who had known war. Known it and suffered because of it. He supported himself on a crutch which he held with the familiarity of long custom, and though both legs were booted, the left was stiff in a manner that told no living foot was encased within.
The others were an odd-looking assembly if judged by the populations of most towns or holds. They were in the chief male and for the greater part quite old, but with a relatively few younger people to tell that the place was not entirely dead or dying.
The silver-haired man saw the direction of his glance and stepped forward a pace.
"Lormt gives you welcome again, Bird Warrior, and welcomes your companions," he said in a marvelously soft voice.
Tarlach felt no surprise that he was recognized. The tall helmets screening the upper portion of their faces made it difficult for those of other peoples to tell one man of his race from another, but no one with eyes in his head could forget the Seakeep horse that he rode. Lady Gay had identified him as the guest who had sought information from Lormt's store of knowledge and abruptly left again saying only that he and one other would return shortly.
The Falconer's heart twisted. He had gone to the coast to meet Una's ship as they had arranged before he had left High Hallack. As Holdruler, she had been unwilling to leave her Dale in that busy season, and so they had decided that he should come on ahead and learn what he could and that she would join him in the fall when the press of her duties had eased. She had wanted to help him conclude his studies and discuss what he, what they, uncovered in depth before approaching his people. Instead, she had found her doom. He had led her to her doom, he who was sworn to defend her....
"For that welcome, thanks given, Lord Ouen," the Falconer responded, forcing himself to speak steadily. "We come, as you have seen, in need of aid and as well because I would continue to delve your records. My comrade with me and eight others who follow after would remain a while to rest themselves and their mounts, if you so will, before riding to the camp of our people on the Es. We shall, of course, give payment."
"I am no lord, but only Ouen, Bird Warrior," he replied sternly, "as you well know, and as for payment, this is no inn, although need requires that we accept gratefully any just donation freely given." He smiled then, and the stiffness vanished from him as if by a Witch's sorcery. "It is our pleasure to receive you and all your party." His head moved slightly in the direction of the open gate. "Come inside now. Your animals are in need of attention, and you yourselves would benefit from rest. Your chamber is still free, and another has already been prepared for your companion's use."
Tarlach bowed his head formally. "Again, thanks given.—To the house greeting," he added in the formal guesting ritual, "to those of the house good fortune. To the day a good dawn and sunset, to the endeavor good fortune without a break."
Ouen and Duratan led their guests through the gate and across the open court within to a large barrack-like building standing lengthwise against the second remaining wall. This they entered and ascended to the level above with no delay made because of one host's age or the other's disability.
"Most of the older inhabitants are housed below since the stairs would be a trial for many of Lormt," Ouen informed them, "but our guests and those of us who do live up here find the greater solitude restful. For that reason, too, the infirmary is located on this floor."
"For us, that is well," the Captain answered for his Lieutenant, as was their custom when among those of other races. "My people prefer to remain apart as much as possible."
Excerpted from Flight of Vengeance by Andre Norton, P.M. Griffin. Copyright © 1992 Andre Norton, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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