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Witch World

by Andre Norton

PART I: VENTURE OF SULCARKEEP

I

SIEGE PERILOUS

The rain was a slantwise curtain across the dingy street, washing soot from city walls, the taste of it metallic on the lips of the tall, thin man who walked with a loping stride close to the buildings, watching the mouths of doorways, the gaps of alleys with a narrow-eyed intentness.

Simon Tregarth had left the railroad station two — or was it three hours ago? He had no reason to mark the passing of time any longer. It had ceased to have any meaning, and he had no destination. As the hunted, the runner, the hider — no, he was not in hiding. He walked in the open, alert, ready, his shoulders as straight, his head as erect as ever.

In those first frantic days when he had retained a wisp of hope, when he had used every scrap of animal cunning, every trick and dodge he had learned, when he had twisted and back-trailed, and befogged his tracks, then he had been governed by hours and minutes, he had run. Now he walked, and he would continue to walk until the death lurking in one of those doorways, in ambush in some alley would confront him. And even then he would go down using his fangs. His right hand, thrust deep into the soggy pocket of his top coat, caressed those fangs — smooth, sleek, deadly, a weapon which fitted as neatly into his palm as if it were a part of his finely trained body.

Tawdry red-and-yellow neon lights made wavering patterns across the water-slick pavement; his acquaintance with this town was centered about a hotel or two located at its center section, a handful of restaurants, some stores, all a casual traveler learned in two visits half a dozen years apart. And he was driven by the urge to remain in the open, for he was convinced that the end to the chase would come that night or early tomorrow.

Simon realized that he was tiring. No sleep, the need for constant sentry-go. He slackened pace before a lighted doorway, read the legend on the rain-limp awning above it. A doorman swung open the inner portal and the man in the rain accepted the tacit invitation, stepping into warmth and the fragrance of food.

The bad weather must have discouraged patrons. Maybe that was why the headwaiter welcomed him so quickly. Or perhaps the cut of the still presentable suit protected from the damp by the coat he shed, his faint but unmistakable natural arrogance — the mark left upon a man who has commanded his kind and been readily obeyed — insured for him the well-placed table and the speedily attentive waiter.

Simon grinned wryly as his eye sped down the lines of the menu, and there was a ghost of true humor in that grin. The condemned man would eat a hearty meal anyway. His reflection, distorted by the curving side of the polished sugarbowl, smiled back at him. A long face, fine-drawn, with lines at the corners of the eyes, and deeper set brackets at the lips, a brown face, well-weathered, but in its way an ageless face. It had looked much the same at twenty-five, it would continue to look so at sixty.

Tregarth ate slowly, savoring each bite, letting the comforting warmth of the room, of the carefully chosen wine, relax his body if not mind and nerves. But that relaxation nurtured no false courage. This was the end, he knew it — had come to accept it.

“Pardon…”

The fork he had raised with its thick bite of steak impaled did not pause before his lips. But in spite of Simon’s iron control a muscle twitched in his lower eyelid. He chewed, and then he answered, his voice even.

“Yes?”

The man standing politely at his table might be a broker, a corporation lawyer, a doctor. He had a professional air designed to inspire confidence in his fellows. But he was not what Simon had expected at all, he was too respectable, too polite and correct to be — death! Though the organization had many servants in widely separated fields.

“Colonel Simon Tregarth, I believe?”

Simon broke a muffin apart and buttered it. “Simon Tregarth, but not ‘Colonel’,” he corrected, and then added with a counterthrust on his own, “As you well know.”

The other seemed a little surprised, and then he smiled, that smooth, soothing, professional smile.

“How maladroit of me, Tregarth. But let me say at once — I am not a member of the organization. I am, instead — if you wish it, of course — a friend of yours. Permit me to introduce myself. I am Dr. Jorge Petronius. Very much at your service, may I add.”

Simon blinked. He had thought the scrap of future remaining to him well accounted for, but he had not reckoned on this meeting. For the first time in bitter days he felt, far inside him, the stir of something remotely akin to hope.

It did not occur to him to doubt the identification offered by this small man watching him narrowly now through the curiously thick lenses, supported by such heavy and broad black plastic frames that Petronius appeared to wear the half-mask of eighteenth century disguise. Dr. Jorge Petronius was very well known throughout that half-world where Tregarth had lived for several violent years. If you were “hot” and you were also lucky enough to be in funds you went to Petronius. Those who did were never found thereafter, either by the law, or the vengeance of their fellows.

“Sammy is in town,” that precise, slightly accented voice continued.

Simon sipped appreciatively at his wine. “Sammy?” he matched the other’s detachment. “I am flattered.”

“Oh, you have something of a reputation, Tregarth. For you the organization unleashed their best hounds. But after the efficient way you dealt with Kotchev and Lampson, there remained only Sammy. However, he is slightly different metal from the others. And you have, if you will forgive my prying into your personal affairs, been on the run for some time. A situation which does not exactly strengthen the sword arm.”

Simon laughed. He was enjoying this, the good food and drink, even the sly needling of Dr. Jorge Petronius. But he did not lower his guard.

“So, my sword arm needs strengthening? Well, doctor, what do you suggest as the remedy?”

“There is my own.”

Simon put down his wine glass. A red drop trickled down its side to be absorbed by the cloth.

“I have been told your services come high, Petronius.”

The small man shrugged. “Naturally. But in return I can promise complete escape. Those who trust me receive the worth of their dollars. I have had no complaints.”

“Unfortunately I am not one who can afford your services.”

“Your recent activities having so eaten into your cash reserve? But, of course. However, you left San Pedro with twenty thousand. You could not have completely exhausted such a sum in this short interval. And if you meet Sammy what remains shall only be returned to Hanson.”

Simon’s lips tightened. For an instant he looked as dangerous as he was, as Sammy would see him if they had a fair, face-to-face meeting.

“Why hunt me up — and how?” he asked.

“Why?” Again Petronius shrugged. “That you shall understand later. I am, in my way, a scientist, an explorer, an experimenter. As for how I knew you were in town and in need of my service — Tregarth, you should be aware by now how rumor spreads. You are a marked man and a dangerous one. Your coming and going is noted. It is a pity for your sake that you are honest.”

Simon’s right hand balled into a fist. “After my activities of the past seven years you apply that label to

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