Simon blinked, his hands moved beneath the covers, and he sat up, his eyes on the curtains to his left. Soft as it had been, he had caught that whisper of footfall, and he was not surprised when the rings of the curtains clicked, and the thick blue fabric parted, so that he looked at the very man who had been in his thoughts.

Freed of his armor Koris was even more of a physical oddity. His too-wide shoulders, those dangling, over- long arms overweighed the rest of him. He was not tall and his narrow waist, his slender legs were doubly small in contrast to the upper part of his body. But set on those shoulders was the head of the man Koris might have been had nature not played such a cruel trick. Under a thick cap of wheat-yellow hair was the face of a boy who had only recently come to manhood, but also the face of one who had had no pleasure in that development. Strikingly handsome, apart from those shoulders, jarring with them, the head of a hero partnered to the body of an ape!

Simon slid his legs down the mound of the high bed and stood up, sorry at that moment that he must force the other to look up to him. But Koris had moved back with the quickness of a cat and perched on a broad stone ledge running beneath a slit window, so that his eyes were still on a level with Tregarth’s. He gestured with a grace foreign to his long arm to a nearby chest, indicating a pile of clothing there.

Those were not the tweeds he had crawled out of before seeking bed, Simon noted. But he also saw something else, a subtle reassurance of his present status there. His automatic, the other contents of his pocket, had been laid out with scrupulous neatness to one side of that new clothing. He was no prisoner, whatever other standing he might have in that hold.

He pulled on breeches of soft leather, resembling those Koris now wore. Supple as a glove, they were colored a dark blue. And with them were a pair of calf-high boots of a silvery-gray substance he thought might be reptile hide. Having dressed so far he turned to the other and made gestures of washing.

For the first time a ghost of smile touched the Guardsman’s well-cut mouth and he pointed to an alcove. Medieval the hold of Estcarp might be superficially, Simon discovered, but the dwellers therein had some modem views on sanitation. He found himself introduced to water which flowed, warm, from a wall pipe when a simple lever was turned, to a jar of cream, faintly fragrant, which applied and then wiped off erased all itch of beard. And with his discoveries came a language lesson, until he had a growing vocabulary of words Koris patiently repeated until Simon had them right.

The officer’s attitude was one of studied neutrality. He neither made friendly overtures, save for his language instructions, nor accepted Simon’s attempts at more personal conversation. In fact, as Tregarth pulled on a garment intended to serve as both shirt and jacket, Koris shifted halfway around on the window ledge to stare out into the day sky.

Simon weighed the automatic in his hand. The Estcarpian officer appeared to be indifferent as to whether this stranger went armed or not. At length Tregarth slipped it into his belt above his lean and now empty middle, and signed that he was ready to go.

The room gave on a corridor and that, within a few paces, upon a stair down. Simon’s impression of immeasurable age was confirmed by the hollows worn in those same stone steps, a groove running along the left wall where fingers must have passed for eons. Light came palely from globes set far above their heads in metal baskets, but the nature of that light remained a mystery.

A wider hall lay at the foot and men passed there. Some in the scaled mail were guards on duty, others had the easier dress Simon now wore. They saluted Koris and eyed his companion with a somber curiosity he found vaguely disconcerting, but none of them spoke. Koris touched Tregarth’s arm, motioned to a curtained doorway, holding back a loop of the cloth in a way which suggested an order.

Beyond stretched another hall. But here the bare stone of the walls were covered with hangings bearing the patterns of the same symbols he had seen on the bed canopy, half familiar, half alien. A sentry stood to attention at the far end of that way, raising the hilt of his sword to his lips. Koris looped back a second curtain, but this time he waved Simon by him.

The room seemed larger than it was because of the vault of the ceiling which pointed up far overhead. Here the light globes were stronger, and their beams, while not reaching into those lofty shadows, did show clearly the gathering below.

There were two women awaiting him — the first he had seen within the pile of the keep. But he had to look a second time to recognize in the one standing, her right hand on the back of a tall chair which held her companion, the woman who had fled before the hunters of Alizon. That hair which had hung in lank soaked strings about her then was coiled rather severely into a silver net, and she was covered primly from throat to ankle by a robe of a similar misty color. Her only ornament was an oval of the same cloudy crystal such as she had worn then in a wrist band, but this hung from a chain so that the stone rested between the small mounds of her breasts.

“Simon Tregarth!” It was the seated woman who summoned him, so his eyes passed to her, and he found that he could not take them away again.

She had the same triangular face, the same seeking eyes, the same black coils of netted hair. But the power which emanated from her was like a blow. He could not have told her age, in some ways she might have seen the first stones ofEstcarp laid one upon another. But to him she seemed ageless. Her hand flashed up and she tossed a ball toward him, a ball seemingly of the same cloudy crystal as the gem she and her lieutenant wore as jewels.

Simon caught it. Against his flesh it was not cold as he had expected, but warm. And as he instinctively cupped it in both hands, her own closed over her jewel, a gesture echoed by her companion.

Tregarth could never afterwards explain, even to himself, what followed. In some weird fashion he pictured in his mind the series of actions which had brought him to the world ofEstcarp, sensing as he did so that those two silent women saw what he had seen and in a measure shared his emotions. When he had done that a current of information flowed in his direction.

He stood in the main fortress of a threatened, perhaps a doomed land. The age-old land of Estcarp was menaced from the north and from the south, and also from the sea to the west. Only because they were the heirs of age-old knowledge were the dark people of her fields, her towns and cities, able to hold back the press. Theirs might be a losing cause, but they would go down fighting to the last blow of sword from the last living Guardsman, the last blasting weapon man or woman could lay hand upon.

And that same hunger which had drawn Simon under the rough arch in Petronius’ yard into this land, was alive and avid in him once more. They made no appeal to him, their pride was unbending. But he gave his allegiance to the woman who had questioned him, chose sides in that moment with a rush of a boy’s openhearted enthusiasm. Without a spoken word passing between them, Simon took service in Estcarp.



Simon raised heavy tankard to his lips. Over the rim of the vessel he watched the scene alertly. On his first acquaintance he had thought the people of Estcarp somber and overshadowed by a crushing weight of years, the last remnants of a dying race who had forgotten all but dreams of the past. But during the past weeks he had learned bit by bit how surface and superficial that judgment had been. Now in the mess of the Guards his attention flicked from face to face, reappraising, not for the first time, these men with whom he shared a daily round of duties and leisure.

To be sure their weapons were strange. He had had to learn the sword for use in close melee, but their dart guns were enough like his automatic to cause him little trouble. He could never match Koris as a warrior — his respect for that young man’s skill was unbounded. However Simon knew the tactics of other armies, other wars, well enough to make suggestions even that commander came to appreciate.

Simon had wondered how he would be received among the Guards — they were making a stand against high odds and to them any stranger might represent an enemy — a breach in the wall of defense. Only he had not reckoned with the ways of Estcarp. Alone in the nations of this continent, Estcarp was willing to welcome one coming with a story as wild as his own. Because the power of that ancient holding was founded upon — magic!

Tregarth rolled the wine about his tongue before he swallowed, considering objectively the matter of magic. That word could mean sleight-of-hand tricks, it could cover superstitious Mumbo-Jumbo — or it could stand for

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