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The Coming of the Far Strangers
The storm had been high, battering the cliffs, breaking over the half reef which gave protection for anchoring the fishing boats. But the men of Wark had had warning (for none are so weather-wise as those who live by wind and wave and the changeful sea-luck). So no boats were lost, nor men either—save only that the smaller yawl of Omund was driven up on the beach so he must inspect it carefully.
Omund was not the only one upon the wave-pounded sands that morning, for sea storms, if they do not take wantonly from what little stores of goods a man may garner, sometimes give. Thus all of Wark who could keep to their feet and had keen eyes were down on the strand seeing what bounty might have been deposited at their very doorsteps.
Sometimes amber was found so, and that was a precious find. Once Deryk had come across two gold coins, very old, with signs on them Aufrica, the Wise Woman, said were of the Old Ones. So Deryk took them to the smithy straightaway and had them melted into a lump, thus removing any magic curse from good metal.
Always there was wood, and the kelp from which women could make dyes for winter wear, and shells, which the children treasured. Sometimes the wreck of ships, such as never anchored in the reef-guarded small-bay of Wark, nor which most of the people had ever seen the like of—nor would unless they traveled to Jurby port.
This time came the strangers. At first those on the beach thought the boat drifting in deep water was wreckage, and then there was a flutter of movement aboard. Yet there were no oars. When those on shore called and waved (though their voices might well be lost in the crying of the sea birds) there came no answer.
At last Kaleb of the Forge stripped and swam out, a rope about his middle. Then he waved vigorously to let them know there was life aboard and made fast the rope, so the men, pulling together, could bring in the boat.
In it lay two, though one leaned against the side, her salt-tangled hair about her wan face, her hands moving weakly as she tried to brush it from her eyes. The man lay quiet, a great wound upon one temple as if he had been felled in battle, so that they first thought him dead. But Aufrica, bustling forward, as became her calling of healer, pulled aside his sodden tunic and listened for the heartbeat, declaring that the sea, or ill fortune, had not taken him yet. Thus with the woman, who seemed in a daze, unhearing their questions, only brushing feebly at her hair and staring wide-eyed, he was taken to Aufrica's house.
So the strangers came on the storm edge to Wark. And thereafter they stayed, though they remained strangers. For the wound which had felled the man had in a manner changed him. At first he was like a little child and the woman fed and cared for him as if indeed he was one she had before carried at her breast.
Their clothing, sea-stained and stiff with salt, was not that of villagers, nor was the woman like any they knew. At first, Aufrica reported, she had not their tongue, but she learned it speedily. Then Aufrica, who had always been open, spoke less and less of those she sheltered. And when Gudytha, the headman's wife, and others asked questions, she was evasive, as if she harbored some secret which both awed and excited her.
The women of Wark spoke long and often to their goodmen, and at length Omund came to the house of Aufrica as Headman to ask the name and purpose of the strangers that he might send word to the Lord Gail-lard in whose territory Wark lay. For this was in the Year of the Salamander, before the great war of the invaders, and High Hallack was at peace, with law within its borders, especially along the coast where the settlements dated from the early days.
The stranger man sat in the sun, his healed wound leaving a scar across his forehead. Except for that he was comely, dark of hair, with thin, well-cut features which were not those of the Dalesmen. He was slender of body, though tall, and Omund noted that his hands, which lay slackly on his knees, were not calloused as his own from oar and net, but rather those of a man who had not labored thus for a living.
He smiled at Omund with the open frankness of a child and there was that about him which made Omund smile back as he would at his own young son. And in that moment he thought that for all the tittle-tattle of the village wives and the talk over the wine-horns of the men, there was no harm in this poor stranger and he had come on a useless errand.
At that moment there was the opening of the door and he looked away from the smiling man to face the woman who had come out of the sea in his company. Straightaway something stirred deep in Omund's mind, though he was a simple man who found the events of each day enough to think on.
She was nigh as tall as he and, like the man, slender and dark of hair. Her face was thin to gauntness and there was certainly no trace of beauty, as Omund reckoned it, in her. But there was something else—
He had been to the great hall in Vestdale to be confirmed in his headship for Wark. There he had seen the Lord of the Dale and his Lady sitting in state, all power and authority. Yet when he faced the stranger woman, wearing a kirtle made from one of Aufrica's and badly fitting, too, with no gems on her fingers or at her throat, her hair braided but with no golden bells to dance lightly at the ends of those braids, he felt more awe than he had in the full splendor of Vestdale. It was her eyes, he afterward decided—nor could hehave told the color of them, save that they were dark and seeming too large for the thinness of her face. Still in them—
Without thinking Omund took the seaman's knitted cap from his head and raised his hand palm out as he would to the Lady of Vestdale herself.
"Welcome in peace." Her voice was low, yet had in it a kind of controlled power, as if she could shout down the mountains behind them if she wished. She stood aside for him to enter.
Aufrica sat on a low stool by the fire. But she did not rise nor bid him welcome, leaving all to the stranger as if this was not now her own house, but rather she was visitor within its walls.
On the table was the hosting-horn filled with the good wine of hospitality. Beside it a platter of welcome cakes. And the strange woman held out her hand as was the custom, her fingers light and cool on his sunburned wrist. So she brought him to the table, taking the stool opposite from him across the board.
"My lord and I have much to thank you for, you and your people of Wark, Headman Omund," she said as he sipped the wine, suddenly grateful for such a familiar thing when all else seemed to take on strangeness. "You have given us both second life, which is a great gift indeed. And for which we are in your debt Now—you wish some accounting of us—as is proper."
He had no chance to ask the questions he had formed in his mind; she was in command here even as a Dale lord would be. Nor did he resent that; it seemed right and proper.
"We come from overseas," she continued. "But there is ill doing there, the hounds of war cry. There came a time when we must choose between death and flight. And since no man, nor woman either, chooses death unless hope is fled, we took ship for a new land. There are the Sulcarmen who dwell in ports of their own along our coast, and through them we learned of this land. It was on a ship of theirs we took passage.
"But—" For the first time she hesitated, looked to Tier own long-fingered hands where they rested on the tabletop. "There was a storm," she continued as one who must put aside certain thoughts, "and the ship was sore beset. My lord was struck down by a falling mast as he was to come into the boat. By a great mercy—" here her fingers moved as if she made some sign, and Omund saw Aufrica stir, heard her draw a deep breath, "he fell to me. But there were no others reached us and we drifted until you found us.
"I speak frankly now with you, Headman. What gear we had was lost with the ship. We have naught now, nor any kin here. My lord mends, he learns from day to day as a child learns from birth, yet faster. Perhaps he will never regain all the storm took from him, but he shall be able to play a man's part in the world. As for me—ask of your Wise Woman—I have certain gifts which match hers, and those are at your service."
"But—would it not be better that you go to Vest-dale—?"
She shook her head at Omund's suggestion.
"The sea brought us here, there was doubtless a purpose." Once more she signed upon the table and Omund's awe grew, for he knew now this was one like Aufrica, but greater, so it was well Aufrica did her handmaid's service. "We remain here."
Omund made no report to the Lord at Vestdale, and, since they had delivered the year's tax at Jurby, the Lord's men had. no reason to visit Wark. At first the women were inclined to keep apart. But when the stranger tended Yelena in such a birth that all swore the babe would not come live from her body, yet it did and lived, and Yelena also (after the stranger had drawn certain runes on her belly and given her to drink of herbs) there was no more talk. Yet neither did the goodwives treat her with such friendly wise as they did Aufrica, for she was not of their blood nor kind, and they called her always Lady Almondia, just as they spoke with deference to her man Truan.
As she said, he mended, and when he was fully well went out with the fishers. Also he devised a new way of rigging nets which added to their catch. He, too, went to the smithy and there he worked with a lump of metal he brought out of the hills until he had a sword. This he practiced with as if against future need.
Often together the Lady and Truan went to the hills in directions those of Wark never took. Oh, men had half-wild sheep there which they kept for the shearing. And there were deer, and other game to provide a tasty change from fish. But there were also things of the Old Ones.
For when the Dalesmen came up from the south into this land it was not a barren world. Though the Old Ones were few, for many of them had withdrawn, no man knew where. Those who remained had little traffic with the newcomers, keeping ever to the high places, the wastelands, so that one saw them only by chance.
Strange indeed were the Old Ones and not all of one kind as the men of High Hallack. Some seemed monstrous. Yet in the main they did not threaten man, only continued to withdraw further.
However, they left behind them many places wherein they had once built their own strongholds, places of power. And these, though well built, men shunned. For there was about them a feeling that it was well advised not to disturb their ancient silences, that if one called too loudly or too arrogantly, one might be answered by that better not to face.
There were places also where remnants of powers or influences still clung. Into these one could venture and deal with such—if one was foolhardy and reckless. If you gained, the saying went, your heart's desire from such dealing, yet in the end the sum was dark and grim and you were the worse instead of the better for it.
One such place stood in the hills above Wark and the hunters, the herders kept afar from it. Nor did the animals they trailed or tended ever stray in that direction. Yet it was not noted for evil as some places were, but rather for a feeling of peace, so that those encroaching upon it by chance were oddly shamed, as if they disturbed the rest of something which should not be so troubled.
There were low walls, no higher than a man's shoulder, and they enclosed a space, not square, nor rectangular, but a five-pointed star. In its centermost core was a star-shaped stone set as an altar.
Within the points of the star sand was spread, and those stretches of sand were different in hue. One was red, one blue, one silver, one green, and the last as gold as the dust of that metal. No wind ever seemed to blow within the walls, and the dust was always smoothly spread, as if it had not been disturbed since first it was shifted there.
Outside the star-point walls there was the remains of a garden which was a tangle of herbs. It was there that Aufrica went three or four times a summer to harvest those simples she used in her cures. After the coming of the strangers both went with her first, and then alone. But none spied to see what they did there.
It was from such a trip that Truan brought back the lump of metal he wrought into a sword. Later he brought back a second mass and fashioned a shirt of mail, so cunning his work that Kaleb and fishermen alike would watch, marvel at how deftly he drew out metal into threads or wire, formed them into interlocking rings. As he worked he always sang, though the words were not in their language, and he appeared to be in a dream from which he could not be easily roused.
While he labored the Lady Ahnondia sometimes came to watch, her long hands clasped one over the other tightly as if she willed herself to some hard action. Her eyes were sad, and she would leave with drooping head, as if she watched some fateful thing which had in it the seeds of abiding ill. Yet never did she speak, nor strive to halt his labors.
There came a night in the first of autumn when she arose before the moon was to be seen. She touched the shoulder of Aufrica who lay in her own bed place. While Truan slept they went forth from the house and took the trail up and up. The moon gave light as they reached the top, to show them the way as clear as if they carried lanterns.
So they went, the Lady Almondia first, and Aufrica after, and each carried a bundle in the crook of her arm, and in her free hand a wand of ash peeled white and silvered by moonlight.
They passed through the old garden and the Lady climbed the wall, her feet setting prints in the smooth sand which was silver. Aufrica, following, took care to step in the tracks the Lady left.
Together they came to the star altar. Opening her bundle Aufrica took out candles, finely fashioned of beeswax and scented with dried herbs. She set one of these on each point of the star. While the Lady unrolled the packet she carried and brought out a cup. It was roughly made of wood, as if it had been shaped by hands not accustomed to such a task. Which was the truth, for she herself had labored in secret to hollow it.
This she placed in the center of the star. Into it she shifted a little of the sand taken from each point, putting in a double handful of the silver. So the rude cup was half full.
She nodded then to Aufrica, for they had done all in silence, not breaking the brooding quiet The Wise Woman threw around the cup full handfuls of a white powder, and when that was done the Lady Ahmondia spoke.
Thus calling upon a Name and a Power. And she was answered. Out of the night struck a bolt of white fire to ignite the powder. And that blaze flared so brilliantly Aufrica cried out, covering her eyes. However, the Lady Ahmondia stood steady, and now she chanted. As she chanted that blaze continued, though there was naught for it to feed upon. Over and over again she repeated certain words. At last she flung high both arms, and when she lowered them slowly to her sides again, the blaze died.
But where there had been a cup of rough wood, there was now a goblet shining, as if fine silver. The Lady took this and covered it quickly, holding it to her as if it were some treasure she valued with her life.
The candles had burned away, but they left no dripping of wax where they had stood; the stone was bare. The women turned and went. Aufrica glanced back as they climbed the wall. She was in time to see a small ruffling of the sand as if it moved under some invisible, unfelt wind, to wipe out the footprints they had left.
"It is done, and well done," the Lady spoke with a wearied voice. "There remains now only the end—"
"A lusty end—" Aufrica ventured.
"There will be two."
"Yes, a double wish carries its own price. My lord shall have his son, who, as the stars have written will company him. Yet, there shall be another to guard."
"The price, Lad?"
"You know well the price, my good friend, my moon sister."
Aufrica shook her head. "No—"
Excerpted from Spell of the Witch World by Andre Norton. Copyright © 1972 Andre Norton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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