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THE wind blustered through the gray dawn. There was a crash as one of the slates from the inn roof shattered in the courtyard. Once Romsgarth had been a major town where far-traveling merchants met—the last Estcarpian hold before the overmountain way to Karsten. It was very old and worn, with perhaps a third of the stone-walled, ancient buildings falling in, to become weed-grown rubble. The days of those merchants, with their busy going and coming, were nearly two generations ago, banished now into the past. Karsten—who went to Karsten by mountain roads now? There were no roads since the turnings for the mountains themselves had set up new barriers unknown to any save outlawed men, skulkers and raiders, drawn from afar to seek refuge in holes and dens.
The pickings hereabout for such outlaws must be scanty. Three years of severe winters would have reduced even the most lawless to a small threat.
The girl standing by the inn window, holding the edge of a shutter against the push of the wind, looked out upon the not-yet stirring town, the tip of her tongue showing between her lips. This nervous habit, of which she was not aware, betrayed her anxiety, though none now were left to care what troubled Tirtha of Hawkholme.
There were many roaming along the broken border who, worn by long years of war, sought aimlessly for some refuge or had some business they held secret, lest it be taken from them, as so much else had been. Questions were not asked of travelers in these broken, dying towns. Such life as had returned to Estcarp now lay in the north—in those rich lands once more to be set under plow in a week or two, and in the ports where Sulcar ships nosed in, those hardy traders already seeking their old sea tracks.
Within this room, where a twisted rag—anchored as a wick in a bowl of oil—gave more smoke than light, hung the sour smell of too many wayfarers, too little pride in the inn, too long a span of years. Time weighed on the cracked walls, made the floor uneven, its thick boards worn by the passing of countless booted feet. Tirtha breathed in deeply of the cleaner air outside, then closed the shutter and slipped the bar into place. She moved swiftly to the uneven-legged table with the lightfootedness of one used to dangerous trails.
There she sought, for the second time since her awakening, the purse carried within her jerkin, part of the belt clasped about her waist beneath layers of drab clothing. Made of serpent skin, it was supple enough—as well as tough—for her to feel its contents without opening it. There was money there—gathered slowly, painfully. She need only to look at her calloused hands, feel the ache rising from a sudden shift of her thin shoulders to remember how most of it had come into her keeping. There was also a small hoard of ten irregular discs of gold—so old that all markings had long vanished from their surfaces—the gift of fortune itself. This she had taken as a sign that what she must do had advanced from wishful dreaming to reality.
She had hacked away a fallen tree to free a path for the plow, thus revealing in the turn of its roots a shattered bowl—and in it—this hidden treasure! Fortune had been with her also that she was alone at its discovery. The surly garthman who had hired her as a harvest hand had seen fit to send her out alone on the roughest job he could find—merely, she believed, to teach her that as a woman she was of little use.
Once more Tirtha's tongue touched her lips. Service at the hearth or with the wash paddle along a stream-side was not for her. She wore men's clothing; a sword hung at her belt, though its blade had been so nicked and thinned she feared any use of the weapon might break it. On its pommel was still the tracing she treasured—the head of a hawk, its bill a little open as if voicing a cry of defiance. That was all of her heritage unless ...
Karsten—Karsten and a dream. Since the Witches of Estcarp had wrought their magic in the Turning, upheaving the mountains and making the land walk and so destroying the invading forces of the Pagar, who had risen to rule in the southern duchy of Karsten, no one knew what lay overmountain in these days.
The bits and pieces of knowledge Tirtha had gathered so avidly from any wayfarer (and most carefully, lest curiosity be aroused as to why this sun-browned, hard-featured female was interested in anything beyond the earning of her bread) made clear that the duchy had been split into many small holdings often at war with one another. No lord since Pagar had gained power enough to make the broken duchy whole again.
This present state of Karsten might well serve her purpose in one way, hinder it in another—she had no way yet of knowing. With the discovery of the hoard of gold discs, which she took as an omen, she had come to find out that one did not venture south without a guide. In the rending of the mountains by the Power of the Witches, all landmarks had disappeared and she could not wander alone.
Hence—the hiring fair.
Tirtha buckled on her sword belt and swept up a hooded cloak of stout weaving, lined with hareskin—an extravagance to one slim of purse. Yet the garment was a necessary protection against the weather, like the winds that howled outside now, as well as a sleeping nest for the night. There was her shoulder pack also and her bow and quiver of arrows. She had worked a whole season to learn the making of those, practicing thereafter with dogged patience. She had no dart gun. Those were for the wealthy, heads of households and their guards or for the Lord Marshal's own forces, which kept such law as now ran in Estcarp.
Down in the stable there was a rough-coated but sure-footed mountain mare—used to living off scant grazing—a mount with a rolling eye and a wicked temper. However, that temper was also a good protection against her being stolen. She was as gaunt and ill-looking as her mistress, her rusty black coat matching the short-cropped hair that hung in scallops across Tirtha's forehead.
With calloused fingers Tirtha pinched the wick of the lamp, before moving noiselessly out into a hall where the stink of too-close living made her nose wrinkle as she descended use-hollowed steps into the common room.
Early as it was the innkeeper, a woman with a sagging fat belly beneath a sack apron, sleeves rolled up over arms that were thick enough nearly to match Tirtha's thighs, was at the hearthside, a long-handled iron spoon in one hand, the other rolled into a fist which she had just used to cuff a girl who had been watching the pot. A smell of scorching worked its way through the other odors, and Tirtha guessed at the sin of the younger cook.
Scorched perhaps, but it was food. She had long since learned not to be dainty—if food was hot and filling it would do. Also she had no money to waste by calling for any special dish. She scooped up an empty wooden bowl from the table, picked out a horn spoon, which looked as if it had been at least wiped clean after its last use, and advanced to the scene of conflict.
The serving wench scuttled away on hands and knees, snuffling, seeking a safe distance from her mistress who was stirring the pot with a vigor that sent bits of its contents slopping over the rim. Now her attention switched from what she was doing to Tirtha.
"Porridge—you can have a chop of beef—" Her small eyes had already valued and dismissed this visitor as not being worth urging to eat a more varied meal.
"Porridge," Tirtha agreed, extending the bowl into which the inn-mistress ladled an even six spoonfuls with the ease of very long practice and an eye for profit.
The smell rising from it was not only of scorched meal, but musty as well—the end of the winter grinding. No lumps of chopped bacon, not even a shaving of onion, cut the dusty taste. Still it was food—energy to see her through the morning, and she was not about to add to her reckoning. There were supplies that she must buy. Game did exist in the mountains, yes, and she was adept with a snare—not even wasting an arrow unless she had the fortune to meet a pronghorn. Also,she was countrywise, and with the beginning of the growing season, there were a number of newly green sprouts that could be boiled, not only as food, but for their tonic.
There remained salt and some other things that she must reluctantly lay out money for, and she had the list ready.
The inn-mistress glanced Tirtha's way now and then, as she methodically emptied her bowl, doubtless ready to answer with a quick tongue any complaint. That this woman was wary of her, Tirtha had known from the beginning. She was neither bird nor hare in this land. A woman who rode as a man might, who had no proper place. She was marked, yes, but there were other strangers, some as odd as she was. If they tattled among themselves about her for the space of a day or so, there would arrive some other to make them wonder and surmise. She had nothing to fear this side of the border. On the other side—well, even her face might condemn her there, if the old stories were true, and she was certain that none of their grimness was the matter of a songsmith's imagining. Her own kind—the Old Race—had been thrice-horned, outlawed, hunted, slain—sometimes horribly—when Duke Yvian had ruled, and those days were still unforgotten.
Those who had escaped into Estcarp had formed the Borderers, to ride a blood-stained trail back and forth, providing the first wall of protection for the north. Men and women of the Old Race, who had seen their dead, did not forget. The sword at Tirtha's side had been a part of that time, though the fighting was over when she was but a child not as tall as the table at which she now sat. Still, hatred was bred into her. The Old Race was long lived—unless death cut them down prematurely in war—and their memories were even longer.
Others were stirring in the inn now—tramping down into the common room. There were at least three, who, she decided, were bound for the same place as drew her—the hiring fair held here in the early spring. They were better dressed, fuller of face than she was, as if they did not know the gauntness of late winter. They were garth stewards, perhaps, sent to pick up a herdsman, a dairy maid, even a weaver, if they were lucky.
Her own seeking was different, and only rumor had brought her here. Though many of those who had served in the wars had been granted lands to the east, and others were still attached to lords to whom they had given shield oaths (and some were outlaws because raid and rapine were all they knew), a trained fighting man down on his luck could still be hired. With the better sort, who still had their pride and kept to the old customs, sword oath might be given in return for hire.
She needed a man who knew the mountains, was not an outlaw, yet might be a guide into Karsten. For such she was willing to give a good weight of what now lay snug about the upper curve of her hips.
Tirtha scraped the last unappetizing morsel from her bowl, dropped the licked spoon into it, and rose. The hiring lines would be gathering now where the long-ago guild merchants had had their principal market. With the wind still shrieking, those seeking employment might shelter in the pillared and roofed alcoves, which had held stalls in the old days.
She fastened her cloak throat buckle, jerked the hood well up over her head, and pushed out into the courtyard, to the street beyond. It took only a few moments' quick walk to reach her goal, but the wind cut and pulled, leaving her gasping when the full strength of it hit against her face. There were few to be seen on the street. It was a foul day, and by a new lowering of clouds overhead, like to be fouler. She turned into the square and saw that she was right—those who waited huddled in the alcoves.
Each wore in his hat or her hood the small symbol of the trade offered—a whittled staff for a herdsman, a tuft of wool for a shepherd, a miniature paddle for a dairy maid. Tirtha gave only a quick glance as she strode by. Perhaps she faced disappointment—what she sought might no longer be offered.
It was in the last of the alcoves, as the rain began—carried in fierce lances by the wind—that she saw what she hunted. There was only one. He was alone, as if he were indeed an outlaw—some venturer whom none of these peaceful serving folk wanted a part of, a hawk dropped into a flock of domestic fowl.
Tirtha halted, her hand seeking the half-effaced insignia on the pommel of her sword. This one was as out of place as if he had been painted brilliant crimson and hung about with gem chips.
He leaned against a pillar until he saw her stop. Instantly he straightened, to match her stare for stare—cold-eyed as something that was more of the Dark than the Light. Where she wore leather beneath her cloak, he was mail-shirted, his own cloak cut about at the hem so it came only to his knees, two rents in it badly cobbled together with large stitches. Though he had on a horseman's boots, they were spurless, showing signs of heavy wear. But it was his headgear that left her astounded.
Instead of the plain helm of a Border fighter, he wore a far more ornate one, which masked him half-face. It was badly battered, and there had been a clumsy attempt, even as there had been to repair his cloak, to restore it. Its form was that of a hawk, or a falcon rather, and the right wing had been riveted back into place so that it hung slightly askew.
This was legend indeed. Had those men, born for no other life than that of fighting, been so reduced through the mischance of chaos? Their Eyrie had stood in the mountains—but Tirtha had heard that the warning, which had brought the Borderers down from the heights before the Turning, had been relayed to them also, and surely they must have survived. Yes, in the months past she had heard of some serving on Sulcar vessels as marines—even as they had done centuries ago when first they had come to Estcarp.
They were not such as to find any favor with the Witches of Estcarp, even when they offered their well-trained force to augment the badly depleted army of Estcarp. Their way of life was too alien. To those all-powerful women, it was also hateful and perverse. For the Falconers were a purely male clan—holding females in contempt and revulsion. They did have their women, they bred their own kind, yes. But those were kept in an isolated village to which selected sires went at ordained times of the year. Also they were ruthless with their own get—killing any child not whole and perfect at birth. To the matriarchy of Estcarp they were totally opposed by custom. Thus they had settled in the mountains, built their great stronghold—the Eyrie of Falconers—and border watch towers and carried on a service of protection—first for the merchants who would travel the roads, and then as a barrier for Estcarp against Karsten in the latter bad days.
The Borderers claimed them, though not as sword brothers, and held them in respect. They served together in good accord. Supplies were sent, first secretly since the Witches forbade it, then more and more openly to both the Eyrie and their village of women. In the last days of all there had been very little barrier between the male fighters of Estcarp and these strangers who had come originally from some disaster overseas.
Not only were they expert at arms, but their prized falcons, fitted with devices that were part of their secret, formed a network of aerial spying, which time and time again had proved to be the deciding factor in many skirmishes and mountain battles.
Now Tirtha instinctively looked for that bird—black with the white vee on its breast, its dangling red tresses—which should be riding on its master's wrist. But there was none. Also there was no hand on the arm that would have offered perch to such a bird. Instead there protruded from the fine mail of the sleeve a thing of brighter metal. The man kept his mail, his dilapidated helm, and doubtless his sword, well polished and honed. This thing he wore was not a hook; rather it split at the end into five narrow prongs, resembling a bird's tearing talons. Tirtha thought that it was a formidable weapon, nor did she doubt that he knew well how to use it.
Excerpted from Ware Hawk by Andre Norton. Copyright © 1983 Andre Norton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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