here was much to occupy the mind of Esmond van Orst, warhorse captain of the star merchant Tempest, but he could not help reflecting that if just this once the universe chose to make ordinary common sense, he would soon be dead. Nor would it be an easy death – he was wise enough not to dwell on the details of that. Ahead of him loomed the strangely designed structure that was now the dwelling on Klystra of the so-called star witch, Azueron Ky and what he needed to think about was getting to it and breaking in without being detected.
He stood in the shadows of a low building on the outskirts of the city of Haum staring at a narrow road, little more than a pathway that ran up the hill to where at the top stood the house. At the base of the hill there circled a stream, or moat, that he could cross by only two ways.
He could swim it, or he could go across a narrow, shaking bridge. Van Orst did not think he wanted to swim that stream, for he had heard the occasional splash to indicate that it was not untenanted; once as he gazed at the water he saw a large serpentine head lift out of it and look hungrily around. Any sentries left on guard by Azueron Ky would not be inattentive at any time of day, but most especially not at night.
The bridge, on the other hand looked passable. It was narrow and could not hold much weight, though it looked sufficiently sturdy to hold a man, even one as large as Captain van Orst. It swung on cables – or perhaps heavy ropes – from a system of supports lifted over the water by piles sunk apparently deep in the streambed. There were no visible guardians for the bridge unless you counted
the creatures in the river. In fact, it seemed intended to permit people to cross over to the hill; and there was still that winding, narrow road with the trees and bushes that grew close by it to navigate. He decided he would risk it. Whatever form of torture and murder Azueron Ky had planned for him, Esmond van Orst did not think it would be a simple trap to be sprung as he crossed a crude, precarious bridge.
His mind made up, he started out of the shadow that concealed him when a hand fell softly on his shoulder.
He jumped with surprise and spun around, his right hand pulling his long spaceman’s knife from its sheath and his left darting out to the throat of his assailant. He felt his fingers close on yielding flesh and heard a strangled gasp. He yanked the other person into the moonlight and stared into her face to receive another surprise. “Tylvia,” he said, letting go of her throat.
“What the hell are you doing here?” he rasped, trying to keep his voice from rising.
It was an angry question, and van Orst was a man who seldom showed anger or spoke roughly when addressing the members of his crew, especially young Tylvia. She was trying to answer him but her words came out, like his, in rasps, though a very different sort, that he could not understand; and she was massaging her throat.
“Get back to the ship, right now,” he snarled.
“Captain,” she finally managed to say. “I thought you could use some help.”
“You’re right about that,” he said. “But I need a squadron of ships and a detachment of Rangers, not a small, helpless girl.”
“Well, I don’t come up to your shoulder, maybe, but I’m no more helpless than you are,” she said.
“That’s helpless enough, believe me.” He looked around. It was past midnight and the streets were deserted, even here. Especially even here. “What about the rest of the crew?”
“They’re back at the ship, but not for long. I promised them that as soon as I knew the lay of the land, I’d fill them in and we’d pick a strategy.” She glared at him. He’d never been glared at by Tylvia before. But then he’d never glared at her before, either. The situation was drastic, with Beatrice in danger, and the safe, sane, world of routine unraveling around him. “I won’t go back, either, Captain, no matter what you say or do.”
“You bloody fool.” But the anger was gone from his voice, if not the roughness. He thought for a moment. “Okay, you don’t have to go back, but don’t call the others. Not just yet.”
“I told them –”
“When you had the lay of the land. See that house up there? It is currently occupied by a star witch. The lay of the land seems easy.
You cross a bridge, you follow a path up a hill, you go in and find Beatrice and come back down. But that’s not the real lay of the land. I don’t know what I’m going into, but Azueron invited me, so it’s likely she won’t kill me crossing that bridge or going up that hill. I can’t say the same for you.”
“I can’t just do nothing, Captain.”
He sighed, and then faced reality. “No, you can’t,” he admitted. “But it’s important you not do anything stupid, either. I want you to wait here while I go up there alone.”
“But – ”
“That’s what you have to do. I can’t say exactly what she wants from me but I’m hoping it’s more than just the chance to kill me. If it is, maybe I can negotiate Beatrice’s release. If I can, I’ll send her down and across that bridge.”
“Then what do we do?”
“My advice would be to get the hell out of here, the both of you, and forget about me.”
“Over my dead body,” Tylvia snapped, and went on before van Orst could tell her that was just what he was afraid of. “I’m willing to bet Beatrice will have other ideas, too.”
Van Orst nodded. “I suspect she will, and you can talk about them when you’re safely away from here. But use some judgment, girl. My guess is her first ideas will be foolish and unworkable. And most of
all, just plain hopeless.” He sighed. “Especially just plain hopeless. As for the rest of the crew, leave them aboard the ship. In the unlikely event I manage to get Beatrice safely away from there, it might be best if the ship had enough of a crew on it that you could run. If you can get to it, of course.”
paused to look out over the stream and for a moment, and found himself staring out at the night where the darkness seemed to glow with a fainter darkness.
Then there was a rush of water and something rose up not six feet away from him, a deeper blackness against the tenuous glow of night. It was long, and as thick around as a man’s body, and it swayed like a tall, slender tree carried back and forth by wind. Van Orst growled with surprise and caught his breath.It was a neck, just as he might expect, like the neck of a sea serpent, or a prehistoric beast, or like anything else that could not be real…
And on top of it he could make out, even in the darkness, a very human head.
It watched him. It swayed but made no move toward him, doubtless held back by some order or spell of Azueron’s. But there was no spell to hold back van Orst. He turned and ran toward the end of the bridge.He ran until he was off the bridge and then some distance up the hill, staying to the road, until he stumbled and fell. He rolled over and sat up, looking back. There was nothing there.
Not now. But he did not believe it was all his imagination.
When he caught his breath again, he got to his feet and started up the hill toward Azueron’s house.
There were trees on either side of the road, not tall, but there were enough of them to give him a vague feeling of being hemmed in. He
could see the shadowy massing of the house up on the top of the hill. There were lighted windows here and there, quite bright. But the grounds seemed empty. He thought again of the splashing in the moat and the swaying serpent’s neck and what was atop that neck and wondered what he should expect to encounter here on land.
And he knew also that whatever wandered on this hill was the creation of Azueron, and it was Azueron in whose nonexistent mercy poor Beatrice now was.
It was quiet. He heard only the crunch of his own footsteps on the graveled road.
The structure at the top of the hill seemed less a building, dark against the night sky, than a grouping of unrelated, resentful shadows. The placement of the windows or at least those few that were lighted, seemed random and as unrelated as the shadows themselves. Here a grouping might suggest a face. But there the light behind the window seemed to take on a more reddish tint suggestive of an oven or foundry. And then van Orst was close enough to see the door at the end of the path.
It was a plain door. In the darkness he could not tell what it might be made of but it seemed to have no window or other opening, not even for a key. It had no handle, either. He wondered how Azueron managed to get in and out of her house, then remembered she was a witch. She had a science, of course. One so advanced it could hardly be understood by one as barbaric and backward as he was.
There was nothing to do but knock, so he raised his hand. Before he could strike his knuckles against the door, it opened.
It opened slowly and silently; he thought a creak of hinges might have made things seem more sinister, but then they might have made things seem more real, as well. Beyond the door there was faint gray-tinged light little better than twilight, but good enough to see by should there be anything to see.
He stepped inside and the door closed behind him.
He was in a small entrance room or foyer lined with ceiling to floor curtains on three sides. It was a little larger than a walk-in closet.
Then the curtains in front of him parted and a girl stood there.
Judging from what he saw of her, she was human; and the way she was dressed let him see a lot. She was a small pretty girl, with straight blonde hair that hung not quite to her shoulders, a generous mouth and eyes that seemed made for smiling – though they looked to van Orst as if she had not used them to smile with in years. He didn’t think she was more than twenty.
Instead of any of the conventional fashions native to Klystra, she wore a tight sash encrusted with silver ornaments and small red and blue jewels, low on her hips. A narrow silver-blue strip of cloth hung from the front of the sash, and another in back. Her halter was made of the same fabric. Her waist was narrow and her hips well-shaped. She wore sandals that matched the sash.
Around her neck was a slave’s torque. That, very much, was native to Klystra, and one of the several reasons he hated this world so much.
The girl took van Orst’s weapons from him and tossed them into a corner.
She said, “Come with me,” and turned around and walked back through the curtains, and he followed.
There was a certain healthy grace to the girl’s walk but nothing of the trained seductress, which suggested that she had not been a slave her whole life. Surely a girl as attractive as this one would have been trained to become a concubine or dancer, if she had entered the slave pens at a young enough age. Human-stock is common on Klystra, which had been settled centuries ago by the Titans and Adlans, among others. But van Orst didn’t think she had been born here. Her costume suggested to him a small out-of-the-way world called Mesitra.
She led him along a dark passageway to a door at the end where she stopped and gestured for him to go in to the room beyond.
There the star-witch was, standing in a large room furnished like a potentate’s throne room, to which the slave had led him. She wore a blue sheath covered with intricate designs in silver thread, which van Orst supposed to be arcane. Her thick, long hair was light brown, her
face broad and beautiful. It might have been even more beautiful save that there was a hardness about it, an anger merging almost into rage, now masked over with a look of immense satisfaction.
“Azueron,” said van Orst. It had been a long time since he last saw her but she did not seem to have changed.
Van Orst looked around for the young slave girl, but she was gone. He had not noticed her departure. Azueron’s mouth curved into a smile that was half jeering and he went the rest of the way into the room and stood facing her.
She went to a large chair, like a throne, and sat down facing him. Her eyes were filled with triumph.
“Where is Beatrice?” he said.
“Is that her name, Beatrice?” said Azueron. “This crew member of yours? And is she really so indispensable that you would walk into my domain this willingly?”
“You used her name in the note you sent me. You would not have taken her if you did not know who she was and what she is to me.”
“Just another girl from Olume. Pretty, but by no means special. I’m surprised at you, Esmond. A man who hobnobs with such powerful women as Aelon the Witch and Meriem Abd Alhazred – the high priestess of Cthulhu, no less! You’ve come far since your days as a Star Ranger. Yet you settle for a common mortal.” He said, “Where is she? This is between you and me. It doesn’t concern her.”
“It doesn’t? I suppose not, if you say so. You’ll find her behind that screen.”
She indicated an intricately ornamental folding screen in the far end of the room. Van Orst walked over to it.
He pushed it aside, not knowing what to expect but fearing the worst.
He found himself gazing on the face of Beatrice, but not as he remembered her. There was a stricken look to it, a mixture of fear and pain. But there was no color. Not the dark brown of her hair or bright eyes, nor the creaminess of her skin. The skin was white, the eyes were white, even the hair was white. Not just pale, they were white, like purest marble. He reached out and touched her shoulder. It was cold and hard, unyielding.
“What have you done to her?” he said. He was barely able to speak the words. Beatrice stood there, unmoving. Not just standing still. She had no breath, no pulse, no heartbeat, none of the texture whatsoever of life.
“This isn’t her,” he said at last, barely able to control his voice. “This is a statue.”
“Oh, it’s much more than just a statue,” she said. “Much, much more. Moira could tell you. She was witness to the whole thing.”
“The slave who let you in,” said Azueron. She scowled, looking around. “Run off again. I swear, if I didn’t need her so badly just now I’d trip the switch on that torque of hers and blow her stupid head off her shoulders.”
She reached for a button on the arm of her chair and for a moment van Orst thought she really was going to kill the girl. But he heard a bell sound and realized Azueron was only calling her.
Sure enough, within seconds she ran into the room, stopping a full four feet away from Azueron and looked down at the floor.
“Tell our guest,” said Azueron.
“Tell him what, mistress?” the girl said, looking up at Azueron. Her tone was almost defiant and though she tried to cover it, Azueron knew. Van Orst thought if this girl wasn’t careful, she would certainly end up without a head before long, possibly before morning.
She pointed to the statue, clearly enjoying the moment. “About that.”
Moira turned to van Orst and said. “It was a girl.”
“Her name was Beatrice,” Moira said. “That’s what my mistress called her.”
Van Orst looked at the statue, then back at Moira. “I don’t understand you.”
“She was a girl. It’s something my mistress has the power to do – make people into stone.”
“Make their likeness in stone?” van Orst said.
“No – it was her, the woman Beatrice. There was something done – something my mistress did. She put a necklace on her. That necklace, the one she wears. It turned the woman Beatrice into stone.”
“What? Are you saying that – Do you really expect me to believe a thing like that? Turned her into stone?”
The girl looked away from him, toward Azueron, then back at van Orst. There was a look of pain on her face.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I would have stopped her if I could have – but I couldn’t.”
Azueron’s eyebrow arched with amazement at the words. She stepped forward and slapped the girl, hard. “You pathetic child,” she said, her teeth gritted together. “I ought to –”
Then, from somewhere outside the house there was a scream, then a crackling burst of energy as from a lightning strike, or a powerful handgun.
“Well,” said Azueron, immediately losing all interest in Moira. “It sounds as if you brought someone with you, Esmond. Too bad. At
this rate there soon won’t be anyone left alive aboard that starship of yours.”
Tylvia, thought van Orst. What have you done?
Azueron laughed, coldly. She moved to the throne was and sat down. “Congratulations, Moira,” she said. “I’ve decided to let you keep your head a while longer, because I need you to do something for me. Go outside and find our intruder and bring me back her head, cut from her shoulders whether she’s dead when you find her or not, so I can see who she was. You may use the knife you have hidden in your sash that you were planning to use on me if you ever got the chance.”
For a moment the girl just stood there, mouth agape, staring at Azueron. Azueron laughed again. “You think I did not know, child? You’re such a fool. Now go and quickly, or you’ll be a dead fool.” Her gaze shifted to van Orst. “Esmond and I have old times to discuss.”