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The Crystal Gryphon
A Witch World Book
By Andre Norton
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1972 Andre Norton
All rights reserved.
Here Begins the Adventure of Kerovan, Sometime Lord-Heir in Ulmsdale of High Hallack.
I was one born accursed in two ways. Firstly, my father was Ulric, Lord of Ulmsdale in the north. And of his stock there were told dire tales. My grandfather, Ulm the Horn-Handed, he who led his people into this northside dale and chartered the sea-rovers who founded Ulmsport, had looted one of the places of the Old Ones, taking the treasure sealed within. All men knew that this was no ordinary treasure, for it glowed in the dark. And after that looting not only Ulm, but all those who had been with him on that fearsome venture, were visited by a painful sickness of body from which most of them died.
When I was born, my father was already in middle years. He had taken two ladies before my mother and had of them children. But the children had been either born dead or had quitted this world in their early years, sickly creatures one and all. He had sworn, however, to get him a true heir, and so he set aside his second lady in favor of my mother when it seemed as if he would get no son of her.
My mother's lineage also laid me under a curse. She was the Lady Tephana, daughter to Fortal of Paltendale, which lies farther to the northwest. There are those who even now make off-warding signs at dalesmen from those parts, saying that, when our folk moved thither to settle, there were still Old Ones, seeming like ourselves; and that our people—the Borderers—entered into a blood-mixing with these, the offspring therefrom being not altogether human.
Be that as it may, my father was desperate for an heir. And Tephana, lately widowed, had borne already a goodly child who was now in his second year— Hlymer. My father was willing to forego dowry, to close his ears to any rumor of mixed blood, and to welcome the lady with full honor. By all accounts I have heard, she was willing, even unto risking the curse laid on my father's family by their treasure theft.
My birthing came too early and under strange circumstances, for my mother was on her way to Gunnora's shrine to give offerings for a son and a safe delivery. When she was yet a day's journey away, her pains came on her very swiftly. There was no hall, not even a landsman's dwelling near enough, and a mighty storm was brewing. Thus her women and guards took her for shelter into a place they would have normally shunned, one of those strange and awesome remains of the Old Ones, the people of uncanny power who held the dales in the dim past before the first of our blood wandered up from the south.
This building was in good repair, as is often true of the constructions left by that unknown race. For the Old Ones seem to have used spells to bind stones together in such a way that even time cannot devour them, and thus some buildings look as if they were abandoned only yesterday. What purpose this one might have served none could guess. But there were carvings of men and women, or those who had such seeming, on the inner walls.
My mother's travail was hard, and her ladies feared that they might not save her. After I was born they half-wished that they had failed to, for asking to look upon the babe, she saw me full and gave a great cry, losing her senses and near her wits. She wandered in some mind maze for several weeks thereafter.
I was not as other children. My feet were not with toes, like unto human kind; rather they were small hoofs, split, covered with horn such as make up the nails upon fingers. In my face my eyebrows slanted above eyes that were the color of butter amber, the like of which are not seen in a human countenance. Thus, all gazing upon me knew that, though I seemed far stronger of wind and limb than my unfortunate half-brothers and sisters before me, in me the curse had taken another turning. I did not sicken and die, but thrived and grew.
But my mother would not look upon me, saying I was a demon changeling, implanted in her womb by some evil spell. When those about her brought me nigh, she became so disordered in her wits that they feared her state would be permanent. Soon she declared she had no true child but Hlymer—and later my sister Lisana, born a year after me, a fair little maid with no flaw. In her my mother took much pleasure.
As for me, I was not housed at Ulmsdale Keep, but sent out at nurse to one of the foresters. However, though my mother had so disowned me, my father was moved, not by any affection—for that I was never shown by those closest to me in blood—but rather by his pride of family, to see that my upbringing was equal to my birth. He gave me the name of Kerovan, which was that of a noted warrior of our House, and he saw that I was tutored in arms as became a youngling of station and shield, sending to me one Jago, a keepless man of good birth who had served my Lord as Master of Menie until he was disabled by a bad fall in the mountains.
Jago was a master of the arts of war, not only with the lesser skills that can be battered into any youngling with a strong body and keen eyes, but also those more subtle matters that deal with the ordering of bodies of men great and small. Crippled and tied to a way of living that was only a half-life for a once-active man, he set his brain to labor as he had once ordered his body. Always he searched for new lore of battle, and sometimes at night I would watch him with a strip of smoothed bark before him, patiently setting out in labored and crooked script facts concerning the breaking of sieges, the ordering of assaults, and the like, droning on to me the while, emphasizing this point or that by a fierce dig into the bark with the knife he used for a pen.
Jago was far more widely traveled than most dalesmen, who perhaps in a whole lifetime know little beyond four or five dales outside their own birthplace. He had been overseas in his first youth, traveling with the Sulcar Traders, those dangerous sea-rovers, to such half-fabled lands as Karsten, Alizon, and Estcarp—though of the latter nation he said little, appearing uneasy when I besought him to tell of his travels in detail. All he would say was that it was a land where witch spells and ensorcellment were as common as corn in a field, and that all the women were witches and held themselves better and apart from men, so that it was a place where one kept one's eyes to oneself and walked very quietly and mum-tongued.
There was this which makes me remember Jago well and with gratitude. In his eyes I was apparently like any other youngling, and not a young monster. So when I was with him I could forget my differences from my fellows and rest content.
Thus Jago taught me the arts of war—or rather such as a dale heir should know. For in those days we did not know the meaning of real war, giving that name to our petty skirmishing between rival lords or against the Waste outlaws. And of those we saw many in the long winters when starvation and ill weather drove them against us to plunder our granaries and try to take our warm halls and garths. War wore a far grimmer face in later years, and men got full bellies of it. It was no longer a kind of game which was played by rules, as one moves pieces back and forth across a board on a winter's eve.
But if Jago was my sword tutor, the Wiseman Riwal showed me there were other paths of life in the world. It had always been held that only a woman could learn the ways of healing and perform the spells my people draw upon in their time of need in body and spirit. Thus Riwal was as strange to his fellows as I. He had a great thirst for knowledge, which was in him as a longing for bread might be in a starving man. At times he would go roving, not only in the forest country, but beyond, into the Waste itself. When he returned he would be burdened by a pack like any peddler who carried his own stock in trade.
Being kin to the Head Forester, he had taken without formal leave one of the cots nearby. This he made snug and tight by the work of his own hands, setting above its door a mask carved of stone, not in the likeness of our people. Men looked askance at Riwal, yes—but let any animal ail, or even a man keep his bed in sickness that could not be named—then he was summoned.
About his cot grew all manner of herbs, some of those long-known to every housewife in the dales. But others were brought from afar with masses of soil bundled up about their roots, and he set them out with care. Everything grew for Riwal, and the farmer who had a wish for the best of crops would go cap in hand at sowing time and ask the Wiseman to overlook his land and give advice.
Not only did he bring green life, but he also drew that which wings over our heads or pads on four feet. Birds and animals that were hurt or ailing came to him of their own wills. Or else he would carry them to his place gently and tend them until they were able once more to fend for themselves.
This was enough to set any man apart from his fellows. But it was also well known that Riwal went to the places of the Old Ones, that he tried to search out those secrets our blood had never known. And for that, men did fear him. Yet it was that which drew me to him first.
I was as keen-eared as any child who knows that others talk about him behind their hands. And I had heard the garbled stories of my birth, of that curse which lay upon the blood of Ulm, together with the hint that neither was my mother's House free of the taint of strange mixture. The proof of both was perhaps in my flesh and bone. I had only to look in the mirror of Jago's polished shield to see it for myself.
I went to Riwal, boldly perhaps in outward seeming, but with an inward chill that, young as I was, I fought to master. He was on his knees setting out some plants which had long, thin leaves sharply cut, like the heads of boar spears. He did not look up as I came to him, but rather spoke as if I had already spent the morning in his company.
"Dragon's Tongue, the Wisewomen call this." He had a soft voice with a small tremor, not quite a stammer. "It is said to seek out the putrid matter in unhealing wounds, even as a tongue might lick such hurts clean. We shall see, we shall see. But it is not to speak of plants that you stand here, Kerovan, is it, now?"
"It is not. Men say you know of the Old Ones."
He sat back on his heels to look me eye to eye.
"But not much. We can look and finger, search and study, but of their powers— those we cannot net or trap. One can only hope to brush up a crumb here and there, to speculate, to go on everseeking. They had vast knowledge—of building, of creating, of living—beyond our ken. We do not even know why they were near-gone from High Hallack when the first of our ancestors arrived. We did not push them out—no, already their keeps and temples, their Places of Power were emptied. Here and there, yes, a few lingered. And they may still be found in the Waste and beyond the Waste in that land we have not entered. But the most—they were gone, perhaps long before men, as we know them, arrived. Still—to seek what may still lie here—it is enough to fill a lifetime and yet not find a tenth of a tenth of it!"
In his sunbrowned face his eyes were alight with that same spark I had seen in Jago's when he spoke of a trick of swordplay or a clever ambush. Now Riwal studied me in turn.
"What seek you of the Old Ones?" he asked.
"Knowledge," I answered. "Knowledge of why I am as I am—not man—yet neither—" I hesitated, for my pride would not let me voice what I had heard in whispers.
Riwal nodded. "Knowledge is what every man should seek, and knowledge of himself most of all. But such knowledge I cannot give you. Come."
He arose and started toward his dwelling with his swinging woodsman's stride. Without further question I followed after. So I came into Riwal's treasure house.
I could only stand just within the door and stare at what lay about me, for never before had I seen such a crowding of things, each enough to catch the eye and demand closer attention. For in baskets and nests were wild animals, watching me with bright and wary eyes, yet seeming, in this place, to feel such safety that they did not hide in fear. There were shelves in plenty on the walls. And each length of roughly hewn, hardly smoothed board was crammed with a burden of clay pots, bundles of herbs and roots, and bits and fragments that could only have come from the places of the Old Ones.
There was a bed, and two stools were so crowded upon the hearth that they sat nearly in the fire. The rest of the dwelling was more suited for storage than for living. In the middle of the room Riwal stood with his fists planted upon his hips, his head turning from side to side as if he tried to sight some special thing among the wealth of objects.
I sniffed the air. There was a mingling of many odors. The aromatic scent of herbs warred with the musky smell of animals and the suggestion of cooking from a pot still hanging on the boil-chain in the fireplace. Yet it was not in any way an unclean or disgusting smell.
"You seek the Old Ones—look you here, then!" Riwal gestured to one shelf among the many.
I skirted two baskets with furry inhabitants and came closer to see what he would show me. There I found set-out fragments, one or two being whole, of small figures or masks—bits which in some instances Riwal had fitted together to form broken but recognizable figures.
Whether these indeed represented various beings among the Old Ones, or whether they had had life only in the imagination of their creators, no one might know. But that they had beauty, even when they tended toward the grotesque, I could see for myself.
There was a winged figure of a woman, alas lacking a head; and a man of humanoid proportions, save that from the forehead curled two curved horns. Yet the face below was noble, serene, as if he were a great lord by right of his spirit. There was a figure with webbed feet and hands, plainly meant to suggest a water dweller; and a small one of another woman, or at least a female, with long hair covering most of her body like a cloak. These Rival had managed to restore in part. The rest were fragments: a head, crowned but noseless, the eyes empty pits; a delicate hand that bore an intricate ring of metal on both thumb and forefinger, those rings seemingly a part now of the hand, whose substance was not stone but a material I did not know.
I did not touch; I merely stood and looked. And in me was born a longing to know more of these people. I could understand the never-ending hunger that kept Riwal searching, his patient attempts to restore the broken bits he found that he might see, guess, but perhaps never know—
So Riwal also became my teacher. I went with him to those places shunned by others, to search, to speculate; always hoping that some find might be a key that would open to us the doors of the past, or at least give us a small glimpse into it.
My father made visits to me month by month, and when I was in my tenth year, he spoke to me with authority. It was plain he was in some uneasiness of spirit when he did so. But I was not amazed that he was so open with me, for always he had treated me, not as a child, but as one who had good understanding. Now he was very sober, impressing me that this was of import.
"You are the only living son of my body," he began, almost as if he found it difficult to choose the words he must use. "By all the right of custom you shall sit in the High Seat at Ulmskeep after me." He paused then, so long I ventured to break into his musing, which I knew covered a troubled mind.
"There are those who see it differently." I did not make that a question, for I knew it to be a statement of fact.
He frowned. "Who has been saying so to you?"
"None. This I have guessed for myself."
His frown grew. "You have guessed the truth. I took Hlymer under my protection, as was fitting when his mother became Lady in Ulm. He has no right to be shield-raised to the High Seat at my death. That is for you. But they praise me now to hand-fast Lisana with Rogear, who is cousin-kin to you."
I was quick enough to understand what he would tell me and yet loath to hear it. But I did not hesitate to bring it into the open myself.
"Thus Rogear might claim Ulmsdale by wife-right."
My father's hand went to his sword hilt and clenched there. He rose to his feet and strode back and forth, setting his feet heavily on the earth as if he needed some firm stance against attack.
"It is against custom, but they assault my ears with it day upon day, until I am well-nigh deafened beneath my own roof!"
I knew, with bitterness, that his "they" must be mainly that mother who would not call me son. But of that I did not speak.
Excerpted from The Crystal Gryphon by Andre Norton. Copyright © 1972 Andre Norton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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