Brother to Shadows by Andre Norton

THE CHILL FINGERS OF THE DAWN WIND CLAWED. Behind the spires of the Listeners the sky was the color of a well-honed throwing knife. There was not any answer to time's passing in Ho-Le-Far Lair.

Brothers stood in the courtyard as they had since twilight, keeping the Face-the-great-storm position with a purpose that rose above any cramping of limb or protest of body. Only their eyes were apprehensive and what they watched was that oval set at the crown of the arch which marked the door of the Master's great hall. What should have showed a glow of light was lifeless, as dull as the stone in which it was set.

Now through that door, which gaped like a skull's lipless jaws at the top of a flight of stairs, came the long awaited figure muffled in robes the hue of dried blood—The Shagga Priest.

He spoke and his voice, though low-pitched, carried as it had been trained to do.

'The Master has fulfilled his issha vow.'

No one in those lines below wavered, though this was an ending to all the life they had known.

Those two to the fore of the waiting company raised hands in Sky-draw-down gestures. Then they strode forward with matching steps while the priest descended further to meet them. He stopped, still above their level, so they must look up to meet his eyes. In the growing light their Shadow garments were a steel to match the lowering sky.

TarrHos, Right Hand to the Master, crossed his hands at breast level, drawing with action too quick for the eye to truly follow, slender daggers.

'It is permitted?' he asked of the priest, his voice as hard as the weapons he displayed.

'It is permitted—by the Issha of this Brotherhood it is so.' The priest nodded his shaven head and his own hands advanced, like predators on the prowl, from the shadows of his wide sleeves to sketch certain age-old gestures.

TarrHos went to his knees. Three times he bowed, not to the priest but to that lifeless stone above. It was a blinded eye now; that force which it had contained had fled, no brother or priest could tell why or how. It had been, it was not, and with it went the life of this Lair.

TarrHos's weapons swept in the ritual gesture. There was no sound from the man who crumpled forward, only the moaning of the wind. Red spattered upward, not quite reaching the perch of the priest.

LasStir, Left Hand of the Master, took another step forward. He did not look at his dead fellow.

'It is permitted?' His voice, rendered harsh by an old throat wound, outrode the wind.

'It is permitted—the issha holds.'

With the same dexterity of weapons LasStir joined his colieutenant in death.

The Shagga descended the last two steps, making no effort to draw back the hem of his robe from the spreading pools of blood coming to join as one.

Ten more made up that assembly left below, younger men, some near boys. Their short cloaks were black, the sign of those who had not made at least ten forays for the honor of the Lair. One in that line dared to speak to the Shagga.

'It is permitted?' His voice was a little too high, too shrill.

'It is not permitted!' The priest silenced him. 'A Lair dies when its heart is no longer fed by the will of its Master. The unblooded and half-sworn do not take up the issha.

'Rather you shall serve in other Lairs still as is demanded of you. Ho-Le-Far has ceased to be.' He made the Descent-of-Darkest-Night wave with his left hand—so setting an end to all which had existed here, erasing a long and valiant history. 'Here no longer is there a Post of Shadows.'

For the first time there was a slight movement in that assembly. This was a thing of disaster, almost of terror, and it was an evil fate to be caught in it.

The Shagga moved along the line slowly, stopping to eye each one, and to address that one alone:

'HasGan and CarFur,' he singled out the first two on the left. 'Draw supplies and weapons, go to the Lair of Tig-Nor-Tu. DisNov and YasWar, you will do likewise, but go over mountain to Ou-Quar-Nin.'

So it went until the priest reached the last in that line. He had to look up to meet eye to eye with the waiting novice and now that it was fully light it was plain to see the sparks of malice in his sunken eyes, the vicious twist of his lips as he shaped words which he had long savored and held ready for this moment.

'Outlander—misborn—no-blood— Out with you to where you will—you are not of the Oath and by the Will of TransGar you never shall be. You are an abomination, a stain. No doubt the Master's force death has come through you. You will take no weapons—for those are of the Brotherhood, and henceforth you will go your own way!'

The hooded listener refused the Shagga the satisfaction of seeing how deep that thrust went. He had long known that the priest hated him, looked upon his being there as a blot on the honor of the Lair. Since the force stone had started to fail he had foreseen this and tried to plan beyond it. But so much of his life was tied here that it was hard to break the bonds of discipline, to think of himself as moving without orders on a wayward path which had no real goal.

Within the Lair only the Master had ever shown him any concern. He had been told why only three moon speds ago. The Brothers to Shadows, trained assassins, spies, bodyguards, had been in service on Asborgan for centuries. Rulers employed their services knowing well that, once oathed, they were absolutely loyal to their employer for the agreed-upon length of their bond. However, recently there had been a rumor that their particular talents were in demand off-world also and that was a new source of income for the Lairs. To employ one of off-world blood off- world would be setting that Lair to the fore of the new idea and the Master had been a forward-looking man—which was, Jofre thought, a hidden point of disagreement between him and the custom-bound Shagga.

Jofre was the Master's own find, a literal find, for the Master, on one of his scout training missions, had come upon the wreck of an escape craft, one of those which sometimes could make a perilous rescue from a spacer in

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