Welcome to Andre Norton's

 

Reading Corner

 

andre norton storyteller 1948

Andre the Librarian hosting "Story Time" at the Cleveland Public Library ~ 1948

 

"Come on In! . . .Take a Seat! . . . and Settle Down! . . ."

As we share with you a tale by one of the leading story tellers of the past century.

 

Twice a Month (on the 1st and the 16th) We are going to post an original story by Andre Norton

During the showcase period you will be able to read it here free of charge.

 

Many were only published once.

So it's a sure thing that there's going to be a few you have never heard of.

The order will be rather random in hopes you return often.

 

Happy Reading!




 

 

Hob's Pot

by Andre Norton

 

all.cats.are.gray.1953 fantastic universe

 

1st PublishedCatfantastic II (1991) Edited by Andre Norton & Martin H. Greenberg, Published by DAW, PB, 0-886-77461-6, $4.50, 318pg ~ cover by Braldt Bralds

Available Now ~ Tales from High Hallack vol. 2 (2014) Published by Premier Digital Publishing, DM & TP, 1-624-67189-6, $22.95, 450pg ~ cover by Kib Prestridge

 

Bibliography Page - http://andre-norton-books.com/worlds-of-andre/andre-s-series/noble-warrior/316-hob-s-pot




 

In the old days before Papa came home, no one used the big drawing room since Great-Aunt Amelie had stopped entertaining, saying she was too old for company. However, this afternoon it had been turned into a treasure cave and Emmy, sitting on a footstool beside Great-Aunt Amelie's chair, looked about her very wide-eyed. There was a picture in one of the books Miss Lansdall had brought when she had come to be Emmy's new governess which looked a little like this wealth of color and strange objects, some amusing and some simply beautiful, like the pendant Great-Aunt Amelie was now holding. There had been a boy called Aladdin who had found such treasure as this that Papa's Hindu servant and both of the footmen were busy unpacking from wicker baskets which looked more like chests, pulling back layers of oiled cloth which had kept the sea air out, before taking carefully from the depths one marvel after another.

"Rrrrrowwww!" A cream and brown shape slipped between two of the chests and stopped to try claws on the invitingly rough side of one.

"Feel right at home, Noble Warrior, is that it?" Papa was laughing. "Well, it is true you've seen some of this before. Does this suit your fancy, perhaps?" Papa picked up from a table top a shiny green carved figure. It might have the body of a man wearing a long robe of ceremony but the head was that of a rat!

"Your birth year, Thragun Neklop." Papa laughed again, catching sight of Emmy's bewildered face. "It is true, Emmy. Our Noble Warrior was born in the Year of The Rat. And he will have a very notable series of adventures, too.

"Ali San read the sand table for him and the Princess Suphoron before he left the palace. It's all written out somewhere in my day book, I'll find it for you. The princess wanted to be sure that Thragun was indeed the proper guard for MY princess. And here, my dear, is your robe, so you will look as if you belong in a palace."

He reached over Lasha's shoulder and picked out of the trunk a bundle of something which was both blue and green, like the gemmed feathers of Great-Aunt Amelie's pendant. There were scrolls of silver up and down, and when Papa shook it out to show Emmy that it was a coat, she also could see that the silver lines made pictures of flowers and birds and--yes, there was a cat!

"Ohhhhh!" Papa put it around her shoulders and she was smoothing it. Never in her life had she seen anything so wonderful.

"A little big, but you'll grow into it—" Papa did not have a chance to say anything else, for there came a loud snarl and then a series of deep-throated growls from floor level.

Thragun Neklop had left off his scratching to swing around and face a much smaller container of wood very sturdily fastened by a number of loops of rough rope. Slow, stiff-legged, he approached the box until his nose just did not quite touch its side, and there, with flattened ears, he crouched. One paw flashed out in a lightning-stiff strike and the extended claws caught in the rope, jerking the box so it fell toward the cat.

With another yowl he leapt up and away before crouching again, eyes slitted and a war cry rumbling in his throat.

"Here, now," Captain Wexley said, "did you find your rat after all and is he in there?" He reached down and picked up the chest, standing it on the table.

At first, to Emmy, it looked just like any other box, but with Thragun Neklop snarling that way she began to feel more and more uneasy.

Papa was examining it closely. He looked puzzled.

"That's odd. I don't remember this."

"Captain Sahib," Lasha said, "that was of the sending by the rajah. It came just before we sailed and must have been stowed before you could examine it."

"The rajah—" Papa stood very still looking at it. "But he would have no wish to send me a gift, unless," he was smiling again, "he wished to celebrate my leaving. We were always far less than friends. All right, let's see what he thought was due me."

Lasha arose easily from his kneeling position. In his hand he held the knife which usually rode in his sash. "Captain Sahib, the warrior cat warns, let it be my hands that deal with this." He moved swiftly to slash at the rope. "Some trick, you think?" Papa looked very sober now. "Wait!"

The rope had fallen halfway off the box, but it was still tightly shut. Papa caught it up to carry it into the middle of the room, away from the group by the fire. Thragun Neklop sprang after him and both the footmen and Lasha drew nearer. Emmy bit her lip. Her splendid new coat slipped from her shoulders as she clasped her hands tightly together. There was something--something very wrong now.

Lasha knelt and forced his knife blade into the crack outlining the lid and then very slowly he eased it up. Thragon Neklop, ears back, sleek tail bushed, watched the action unblinkingly.

Once the lid was off, there was an outward puffing of thick grayish fibers. Lasha stirred with the point of his knife. "Cotton, Captain Sahib." He went on pulling out the stuff carefully until there showed a colored bundle. It was dark red and it also had a great many cords around it which crossed and crisscrossed like a spider's web. Once more Lasha used his knife on the roundish package. The cords fell away and so did the wrapping. "A teapot!" Papa laughed. "Nothing but a teapot!" Thragun Neklop snarled. This was his palace, he was the guard. Such a thing as this had no right here. He could smell vile evil--a Khon, truly a Khon. Evil and with power. It had been asleep--now it was waking.

With a yowl Thragun leaped for the top of the table, ready to send this monstrosity crashing on the floor. Then he stopped, so suddenly that he skidded and his claws tangled in the brocade of the table cloth so that he nearly lost his balance. Captain Wexley had picked up the-thing-which-was-eye-hidden, and still laughing, held it closer so Emmy and Great-Aunt Amelie could see it better.

A teapot it was, but not like any Emmy had ever thought could exist. At first it seemed to be a monkey such as Papa had drawn a picture of in one of his letters. Then she saw the lid and she jerked back on her seat, her hand going out for a safe hold on a fold of Great-Aunt Amelie's shawl.

For the nasty face of the thing was twisted up as if it were laughing also, but a mean, sly laugh. Two knobby arms were held out, coming together at their wrists to form a double spout which ended in a fringe of bright red claws.

It had red eyes as well as claws, but the rest of it was a dull yellow color like mud. As it squatted between the Captain's hands, Emmy felt it was looking straight at her. But it was Aunt Amelie who protested.

"Richard--that is a nasty thing. Who would ever give cupboard room to such? Certainly no one would USE it!"

The Captain was examining it closely. He caught at the top of the creature's head and lifted it, peering into the body of the pot.

"Nasty perhaps, Aunt Amelie, but it is a treasure of sorts. It is carved of yellow jade--an unusually large piece, I must say, and these," he placed the head back in position and now tapped one of the eyes, "are, unless I am very much mistaken, rubies, the claws are set with the same. It is worth a great deal—" He was frowning again.

"Why would the rajah give such to me?" he said after a pause.

Lasha spoke in a language Thragun could understand if the rest did not. "For no purpose of good, Sahib."

"Precious stones or not," Great-Aunt Amelie sat up straighter in her chair, "I would say that did not belong in any Christian home, Richard." Suddenly she shivered and drew her shawl closer about her. "Gift or no, I would get rid of it if I were you."

The Captain gathered up the red cloth which had been wrapped around it. "Very well. When I go to London next Friday, I shall take it. Hubbard has a liking for curiosities and certainly this is curious enough to suit him. I'll pass it to him with my blessing and agreement that he can put it to auction if he thinks best."

He passed the enshrouded teapot to Lasha who put it back into the box, though the cords which had kept it so well fastened were now cut past use. But he, pushed the raw cotton back and hammered the top into place with the hilt of his knife.

Though Papa had other things which might have enchanted Emmy earlier, she kept glancing at the box. Something had spoiled all the fun of unpacking. And Thragun had taken up a post right beside that box as if he were on guard.

He yowled when Hastings, the footman, came to pick it up after they had seen each of the basket chests emptied, his tail moving in a sharp sweep.

"This, sir," Hastings stepped back prudently, one eye on the cat as if he expected to be the goal of any attack, "where does it go?"

"Oh, in the library, I guess. On the side table there for now."

Thragun followed the footman, saw the box put on the table. As soon as the man left the room, he jumped on the bench and leaned forward for a long sniff. His lips curled back in disgust. Khon right enough, though there was a touch of something else. He sat back, his tail curled over his paws, to think. There was just a trace of scent left, but one he had smelled before. Once in the time of rains, when the Princess Suphoron had been ill, they had brought to her an old woman who had burned leaves in a brazier by the princess' bed and fanned the smoke across her so that the princess had breathed it in. She had had a violent fit of sneezing which had pleased the old woman who said then that the princess had so expelled the Khon who had entered into her when she had visited an old shrine. For the lesser Khons were sometimes spirit servants of some god or goddess and lingered on in deserted temples long after those they served had departed.

The very faint smell was indeed that of the smoke which had been raised to banish that Khon. Yet it certainly had not banished that which still was snuggly housed within the teapot. Perhaps the smoke had been used to keep the thing in the pot under control until it was completely uncovered.

Thragun snarled and spat at the box. He did not know if the Khon was free to do anything now, he was simply very sure that, as a guardian for Emmy, he must keep alert.

Thragun hunkered down, his legs drawn under him. It was cold here. There had been a fire earlier, but that had been allowed to go out. Though the window draperies were not closed, twilight outside made the room thick with gloom. He could see fairly well. Certainly the box was not opening again by any power of the thing within it, nor could his keen ears pick up any sound. The Captain would take this away--he had said so. Only not at once and Thragun rumbled another small growl at that thought. No good lay ahead for any of them, he was as sure of that as he was that he had a tail to switch in irritation.

However, just to sit and await upon the pleasure of any Khon was not the way of a Noble Warrior. Thragun never had had a great deal of patience. He preferred things to move into action as soon as possible. They had once before in this house—

Thragun's blue eyes became slits as he remembered the time when Emmy herself had been in a danger which he had sensed quickly but others apparently had not known. Then Cook had taken a hand in the game—

Cook, and someone else who had a jealous need to keep this house peaceful.

A Khon was a Khon he knew. In his own land there would have been ways of forcing the creature out of cover. Thragun's paws reached out and he pushed the box a little. Somewhat to his surprise, it actually did move a fraction. He snatched that paw back with a yowl of rage. The thing had dared to burn him!

  The cat arose and walked slowly around the box, keeping his distance but with his head out as he drew deep sniffs in spite of the disgust that the foulness he could scent was decidedly growing stronger. Hot—fire—but the only fire he should smell now was the faint smoky exhaustion of the last live coals in the fireplace.

However, the heat he sensed did not come from any innocent coals or bits of smoldering wood. What was the Khon trying?

Magic—to fight that which sheltered this thing would take magic. Magic spread from a source like a plant grew from a grounded root. Only here, Thragun Neklop considered the matter carefully; there was no root for HIS magic, nothing to serve him as that pot served the intruder. He needed magic which was at home right here, in this other land. And he knew exactly where to find it.

After a last careful survey of the box Thragun jumped to the floor and padded purposefully to the door. It was close to tea time, he knew, when these who rightly valued him provided excellent food on his own dish. His tongue curved over his lips and he paused for a moment by the half opened door of the drawing room, scenting the feast waiting within. However, there was a time for one's taking one's ease and enjoying one's rightful food, and there was a time when duty called elsewhere.

Thragun walked on firmly and then, possessed by the need to do something needful, he flashed down the hall. Hastings was coming with a tray, Jennie holding open the door for him. It was easy enough to slip through and get down to the kitchen.

The smells wafted from well-filled tea stands were as nothing compared with the fragrance here. Cook was working at dinner already. As she moved ponderously from table to stove, she caught sight of Thragun.

"Got a bit o' what's right for th' likes of you, my fine gentleman. Give yourself a taste of this 'ere. ‘Twill only be a foretaste—but Christmas if a-comin' an' you won't be sayin' no to a bite or two of goose then. We have 'im already a-hangin' in the larder."

She dipped something out of a large pan into a bowl.

"Now then, you'll be a-takin' that outside of 'ere—I got me too much to do to go dodgin' you this hour."

She carried the bowl to a second door and set it on the floor, closing the door behind her.

Thragun considered a new problem now. The creature whose help might be well needed had first appeared on a flight of stairs not too far away. There was no way for a cat to transfer this treat to that place. Very delicately he pushed at the bowl and it scraped across the stone flooring. It took three more efforts to get it to the top of the stairs, but there was no way of taking it down. He sat down, eyes half closed to consider the point.

There were no secrets in Hob's Green which were unknown to Thragun by now. He always began the night curled up by Emmy. But if she chose to sleep away the more interesting hours, he did not. When the house was quiet, he would go prowling on his own. He had met Hob when Mrs. Cobb, the cook, had set out a bowl of cream to entice the house luck. That had been several months ago when there had been need of all the help one could summon. When another sort of Khon had commanded ill services in this house.

He and Hob had come to an agreement then and had acted together to dispose of she-who-was-black-of-thought. Thragun's lips drew back a little and his fangs showed. Yes, he and Hob had done together what must be done, and most efficiently also.

Since then he had seen Hob once or twice on his midnight trips of discovery. Whether Mrs. Cobb did or did not believe that the fortunate fall of Miss Wyker down the staircase had anything to do with Hob or not, she had since left out a bowl of cream each Saturday night and that was always drained dry in the morning.

However, Hob was not one who yearned for companionship and had not ever sought out Thragun—which was right and proper—a noble guard and a house thewada had really very little to do with one another, as long as the safety of what they were responsible for was not threatened—

Thragun gave a very small growl. His head came higher and he sniffed an earthy, dried grass smell, whiffing up the stairs.

   There was the faintest of scuttling sounds and something which might have been a ball of shadow detached itself from the wall on the right-hand side of the stairs. It landed beside the bowl with a plump and yellow eyes regarded Thragun slyly. Small but broad flat feet shuffled on the stone and Thragun saw Hob throw up his long thin arms, his fingers clawed as if in threat. Not that that meant anything—it was Hob's first line of defense to try to frighten.

"Hob's Hole—Hob's own—" The voice was high and cracked. "From the roasting to the bone.

   Them as sees, shall not look Them's as blind, they shall be shook, Sweep it up and sweep it down— Hob shall clear it all around."

Whether Hob could read thoughts the cat had no way of telling, but certainly he had grasped ideas quickly enough before. So now Thragun wasted no time in coming straight to the point.

"There is a Khon of great evil now under this roof."

Hob had reached out with both hands for the bowl of offering, but he did not lift it from the floor. Instead he turned his head to one side, his face toward the kitchen door and partly from the cat. It was very wrinkled that face, with eyes far too large, a pair of slits for a nose, and a sharply pointed chin as if he shared a bill with a bird. His eyes, which appeared to give forth a glow of their own, blinked slowly and then swung back to the cat.

Thragun nodded. Hob had forgotten his usual greed, at least long enough to give heed to the cat.

"The master of this household," the cat continued, "has been gifted by an enemy with the source of great evil. Should it escape under this roof, we shall know trouble, and that heavy and soon."

Hob blinked again and then looked down at the bowl. He snatched it up as if Thragun might dispute his ownership and gulped down its contents without even stopping to chew the tender chunks of meat.

Thragun's quiver of tail signaled his impatience. If this were another of his own kind, they would not be wasting time in this fashion. Hob's tongue was out and he held the bowl at an angle where he could run that around the sides to catch the last drop.

Then his voice grated again:

"Hob's Hole!" He stamped one foot to emphasize his claim of ownership.

"Not while the Khon lingers here," the cat answered. "This is a Khon of power and it will take magic well rooted to send him forth again."

The distant sounds of servants' voices reached them and Hob shook his head violently. Thragun knew that refusal to venture far from the portion of the house which the thewada considered its own would hold as long as there was any bustle in the kitchen or the hallways. To impress Hob with the seriousness of this, he must wait until the lower floor of the house was quiet and deserted in the night and he could guide the other to see for himself what kind of darkness had come to trouble them.

Thragun slipped down the hall twice during the evening to see if anything had changed in the library. The box remained as it was. Yet as he marched around it each time, he became more and more uneasy. There was always a bad smell to Khon magic, and to the cat that seemed to grow stronger every time he made that circuit. Yet there was nothing he could do as yet.

He took his night guard position at last on the wide pillow beside Emmy and stretched out purring as he had for every night since he had assumed his rightful position in the household. Emmy stroked him.

"I am glad Papa is home," she said. "Nothing bad can happen when Papa is here—and you!"

Thragun waited until she was asleep and then slipped off the bed and out of the room. He sped at a gallop down hall and stairs. There were still people awake in the house and he could smell the scent of the Captain's cigar from the library. So warned, he crept in with the same care as when he was stalking and took up a position behind one of the long window drapes, hooking it a little aside with one paw so he could watch.

He had no more than taken up his position when the Captain got up and went to the table, pried open the box again, and shook off cotton covering to unveil the enemy, turning the teapot around in his hands and studying it carefully.

"You are ugly, aren't you?" Again he lifted the head lid and peered inside. "I don't think anyone would fancy drinking anything which had been brewed in you. The rajah might have had it in mind to frighten us when he sent this. You'd be better off in a case where you'd be locked away from mischief."

He put down the pot on the table beside the box, making no effort to rewrap it. Then he shrugged, ground out his cigar in a copper tray, and made for the door, not giving the thing another look, as if he had forgotten it already.

Thragun growled deep in his throat. Khon magic—now it started. He was certain that the Captain had not unpacked the miserable pot just to look at it—no, he had been moved to do it by some power beyond his own curiosity.

With the Captain gone, and the lamp turned down, the room took on another and more ominous look. Thragun crept from one bit of concealment offered by a piece of furniture to another. The darkness was certainly not complete—growing stronger by the moment was a sickly yellowish light which issued from the misshapen pot.

He sat up and was watching that with such intensity that at first he did not see the thing which scuttled over from the gap which was the fireplace. But the smell of moldy straw awoke him to the fact that he had been joined by Hob.

The thewada of the house came to an abrupt halt. He had to lean far back so that his head was up far enough for him to see the now glowing pot. One broad foot came down with a stamp which narrowly missed Thragun's swinging tail. So, Hob also knew it for what it was. But the cat was not prepared for the next move made by his companion.

Hob leapt, clutched the edge of the table, and drew himself up to approach the pot closer. Thragun moved uneasily, though he thought it prudent not to follow.

"This is a thing of evil." He did not suppress his warning.

Hob reached for the pot which was nearly as large as his own pointed head. In the strange light his wizened face took on a somewhat sinister look. Hob was no quiet spirit when it came to that which aroused any threat of ownership of all within these walls.

Before Thragun could move or protest, he swung the pot around and hurled it straight at the wide hearthstone. There was a loud noise which sounded almost like an exultant cry. The pot, in spite of its substance, shattered and with such force that the many pieces appeared to go on crumbling untill there was nothing but dust.

Thragun cried out, bared his fangs, hunched his back. In that moment of breakage something had reached out to touch him—something evil. He held against it.

Hob reached behind him on the table and caught up an object which glistened. He leapt toward the cat. That evil yellowish glow lingered enough to show that what the attacker held was a paper knife, a begemmed dagger also part of the curiosities Captain Wexley had brought home. Thragun moved with the swiftness of his kind when facing danger. However, Hob had already dropped the dagger. He was now dancing, holding the hand which had grasped its hilt to his mouth. From the hearthstone the yellow glow arose and circled the house spirit, clung to his whole body. Then it was gone as if it had sunk into Hob's wrinkled brown skin.

Hob—the Khon had taken possession of Hob!

Thragun could not suppress a yowl. But there was a shrill cry even louder. Hob swung around and jumped back toward the fireplace. A moment later he had scrambled into the opening and was gone. Thragun shook his head from side to side as if someone had flung some blinding dust in his eyes. He was as cold as if his slender body was encased in that white stuff Emmy called snow.

What had Hob done—what had HE done? Whatever was now loose in the house was the worst danger Thragun could imagine.

There was no use trying to track Hob through his own private runways, many of which were only open to a body which could become unsubstantial at its owner's will. Thragun sped from the library, made his way as a pale streak through the dark up the stairway until he reached Emmy's room again. He was thinking fiercely as he went.

Were he back in his own land once more, those who knew of such things would speedily beware of the Khon by instinct alone and would take steps to separate Hob from his new master. But in this country Thragun had no idea of who might be approached.

Mrs. Cobb, who had first made him aware of Hob's existence? Somehow Thragun believed that she would not be able to handle Hob as a Khon. And he knew that most of the other servants were afraid of even mentioning Hob himself. He was a legend within these walls but also something to be feared.

Thragun headed for his place on Emmy's bed. In all his time he had never seen a one with the old knowledge such as could stand against a Khon.

"No!" Emmy twisted, her face showed fear and she cried out again, even louder, "No!"

Then her eyes opened and she looked at Thragun as if he were the Khon in person.

"It—" she began when there resounded through the house, loud enough to reach them in spite of the thickness of the walls, a heavy crash. Emmy screamed.

"It'll get me—it'll get me!"

"Emmy!" Miss Lansdall had come so quickly from her own bedchamber next door that her dressing gown was half off her shoulders, dragging on the floor. "Emmy— what is—"

She had no chance to finish her question. From behind the half open door of her own room sounded a second crash which certainly was that of broken glass.

Emmy cowered down in the bed and held fast to Thragun in a way he would have speedily resented if conditions were as usual.

Miss Lansdall looked back into her own room. She swayed and nearly dropped the candle she had brought with her.

"No!" she echoed Emmy's cry of a moment earlier. An object hurtled out of the bedroom, to smash against Emmy's door and fall to the floor with a crackle of broken china. There followed a heavy scent of violets. Thragun realized that Miss Lansdall had just been deprived of one of her most prized possessions—something Emmy had always regarded with delight—a slender bottle painted with the violets whose perfume sheltered within. There came a second crash and again something flew through the air. Miss Lansdall cried out in pain, the candle fell from her grip and hit the carpet, its hot grease spattering, and then flame flickered in the floor covering itself.

Miss Lansdall threw herself forward. Awkwardly she grabbed one-handed for the pitcher of water on the wash-stand and threw it at the beginning blaze. Her other arm hung by her side and in the limited light from the window, Thragun could see a spreading splotch of blood seeping through her dressing gown sleeve.

Emmy screamed again. Now there were answering noises from down the hall.

The gleam of another candle gave better light to the scene. Miss Lansdall had not risen from her knees though the small flame on the carpet was quenched. She nursed her arm against her and her eyes were wide with fear.

Captain Wexley paused a moment at the door, then strode to her.

"What's all this?" he asked sharply, and then, seeing the blood on Miss Lansdall's arm, he looked to his daughter.

"Ring for help, Emmy. Miss Lansdall has been hurt." He helped the governess to a chair and then took up one of Emmy's own petticoats laid out for morning wearing to loop it around the bloody arm.

Miss Lansdall was shaking as she looked up at her employer.

"Sir—it flew at me and—"

Before she could explain further, there came a loud clap of noise as if a door had been opened with such fury that it had struck the wall. That was followed moments later by an explosion.

"What—" Captain Wexley turned as there came a scream and some cries from down the hall. "What in the name of—" he bit off what he was about to say and ended— "is happening."

"My room," Miss Lansdall had reached out her good hand and taken a tight hold of the rich brocade sleeve of the Captain's dressing robe. "Everything—smashed!"

"Captain, sir—!" Lasha came into view, carrying a candelabra with four candles lit. "In your chamber—your pistol—it is in the fireplace and there is much damage—a mirror, your small horse from China—"

Hastings reached them next and then Jennie and Meggy, with quilts pulled around their shoulders. Both of them let out startled cries as there were muffled sounds of more destruction sounding down the length of the hall.

Thragun listened closely. It certainly seemed that the Khon was taking Hob through a rampage of damage, striking at every room.

Strike at most of the chambers he had. China lay smashed, mirrors were shattered, draperies were pulled from their rods, even small chairs and tables were turned upside down. Miss Lansdall was not the only one who suffered personal attack either. Mrs. Cobb, drawn by the uproar, swore that something had caught her by the ankle so that she lost her footing and pitched down the stairs, doing such harm to one of her ankles she could not get to her feet again unaided.

Emmy and Miss Lansdall, once the deep cut in the governess' arm was bandaged, went to Great-Aunt Amelie who was sitting up in her huge curtained bed listening to the tale Jennie was pouring out.

She held out her arms to Emmy and motioned Miss Lansdall to sit down in a comfortable chair near the fire which Jennie must have built up again. There was a look of deep concern on her face as she settled Emmy in the warmth of undercovers.

" ’Tis HIM for sure, m'lady," Jennie dragged her own blanket tighter around her, but that did not seem able to keep her from shivering. "HE has taken a spite 'gainst us. 'E 'as!"

Great-Aunt Amelie listened, but for a moment she did not reply. Before she could, Miss Lansdall cried out, for a large piece of burning wood apparently leapt from the fire. Luckily the screen had been set up, but it struck against that with force enough to make it shake.

There was such a howl come down the chimney that Thragun yowled militantly in answer and jumped from the bed to run to the hearthstone. If Hob was planning on more mischief and truly aimed at those here, he would do what he could. Though if he might be able to actually attack Hob he was not sure. A thewada was apt to change into thin air under one's paws, and a Khon's reply might be even worse. This trouble was of his own making. If he had not brought Hob into the affair, the Khon, still fast in his pot, might well have been taken safely out of the house even as Captain Wexley had promised.

There were more crashes and Emmy was crying. Miss Lansdall’s face was very white. Jennie had dropped on her knees by the bed, her hand a little out as if she reached for comfort to Great-Aunt Amelie.

However, Lady Ashley pulled herself even higher on the pillows and now her expression was one of intent study as if she were trying to remember something of importance.

"The still room," she said as if to herself. "Surely Mrs. Cobb has some in keeping there. Jennie, I will not order you to go there—"

"M'lady," Jennie sat up, "iffen there is something as will answer HIM—" her voice trailed off.

"Rowan," Great-Aunt Amelie said sharply. "Get my robe, Jennie, and my furred slippers. Emmy, you are a brave girl, I know. Remember how you aided me when it was necessary. You must come, too."

Emmy's lower lip trembled, but she obediently slipped out of the bed and put on her own slippers.

"My dear," Lady Ashley was speaking now to Miss Lansdall who had started to rise, her face plainly showing that she was about to protest, "I am a very old woman, and there is much which you younger people dismiss as impossible these days. But Hob's Green is a house very much older than I. Some man well-learned in history once told my father that parts of it were standing even before the Norman Lord to which William granted it came here. There are many queer tales. Hob is supposed to be the spirit of the house. Sometimes for generations of time all goes well and there are no disturbances, then again there are happenings which no one can explain. When I was several years younger than Emmy, there was a footman my father dismissed when he found him mistreating one of the village boys who helped with the fruit harvest.

"The man was very angry, but he was too fearful of my father who was a justice of the peace to strike at him openly. Instead, he waited for fair time and stole into the house, meaning to steal the silver. When the servants returned from the fair, he was found lying in the hall, his head badly hurt and a leg broken. His story was he had been deliberately tripped on the stair.

"But this present disorder seems to be aimed at us within the house and not some intruders. Thank you, Jennie. Emmy, do you think you can carry that lamp? It is a small one and it gives us better light than a candle.

"No, Jennie, I must do this. We shall not have our home troubled in this fashion. There was an old woman who looked after the hens in my father's time—" Great-Aunt had taken the shawl Jennie handed her as she finished tying the sash of her warm quilted robe and pulled it about her shoulders. "Now just give me my cane and let me steady myself against your shoulder, girl. Emmy, you can go ahead and light our way. And—" she looked over to where Thragun waited by the door, "you may just have a part in this, I think, for they say that cats can sometimes see much more than we do, and I believe that you are such a one. Now—let us go."

"What about the hen woman, Great-Aunt," asked Emmy. She held the lamp in a tight grip and tried to concentrate on what Great-Aunt had started to say rather than think of what might be waiting outside in the hall, or at the bottom of the stairs, or in the dark ways into the kitchen quarters.

"She was what the villagers call a wise-woman, Emmy. Like a cat, she might have seen further than the rest of us. Mrs. Jordan, who was cook in that day, had a respect for some of her ways and called her in after the footman was hurt. There were strange noises to be heard then but none of this wanton destruction, at least. The woman brought some sprigs of rowan and put them around. After that, things were quiet again. Rowan is supposed to keep off all dark influences and to close doors against their entrance. From that time on, it was customary to keep some rowan to hand—fresh if possible, dried if there was no other way."

Their descent was slow. Great-Aunt held on to the stair rail with one hand and to Jennie, who kept step with her, with the other, while she pushed her cane through her sash to keep it ready. Thragun flowed down into the dark, once or twice looking back so his eyes were red balls in the reflected light.

Lady Ashley said no more, perhaps saving her breath for her exertions. However, there was noise enough in the house. Emmy heard her father calling for water and smelled what might be singed carpet. Two of the portraits on the walls of the lower hallway had fallen face down on the floor, spraying fragments of glass from under them.

The clock boomed as they turned toward the kitchen wing and Emmy counted the tolls to five. The night was going. It was already time for the servants to be about. Yet this morning no one had time to think of regular duties.

Even the fire in the big range had not been built up and there were no kettles waiting for early morning tea. Spread across the floor was a clutter of utensils, as well as a welter of knives, forks, ladles, and large stirring spoons. There had been a clear sweep made of the many shelves and storage places.     

"Be careful, milady." Jennie kicked, sending some of the debris out of their path. "Now you sit here and tell me what you want."

Great-Aunt was moving more and more slowly and breathing heavily. She let Jennie steer her to Mrs. Cobb's own chair and sat down, resting her head against its tall back. Her eyes closed for a moment and then opened.

"Keys--"

Her voice sounded very weak, hardly above a whisper.

"Yes, milady—" Jennie picked up a crock which was the only thing left on a shelf near the stove and felt behind it, to bring out a set of large old keys. "Luckily Cook leaves the spare ones here of a night when she plans to start early in the morning."

"Still room—rowan—"

Jennie nodded. She had busied herself lighting one of the lanterns waiting to be used for anyone needing to venture out into the stableyard after nightfall.

For a moment she stood looking at one of the doors which led from the other side of the kitchen. Then she stooped and caught up a toasting fork, its handle long enough to make it a formidable weapon. With this in one hand, the keys and the lantern in the other, she advanced toward the door, Thragun already ahead of her.

The key turned in the lock and they were able to look into a room whose walls were composed of shelves, each of those loaded with jars and bottles. There was a scent of spice, of herbs, a large stock of the small bottled jams and jellies.

Jennie paid no attention to any of those and luckily Hob-Khon had not yet carried his program of breakage this far. The maid hunted out a bunch of leafed stems which had been hanging from the ceiling on a cord and swiftly made her way back to the kitchen, taking time only to lock the door behind her.

She laid her trophy on the well-scrubbed table and Thragun did what he had never dared do here before, jumped up beside it, sniffing inquisitively. He sneezed and raised his head. There was indeed a strong strange odor, but it had nothing of the dark about it.

"HE won't come just to be laid, milady," Jennie observed.

"Probably not, Jennie. But what do they say tempts Hob's famous appetite? Cream, is it not? And surely something quite out of the ordinary to be added on this occasion. Hmmm—"

She looked about as if waiting for a suggestion.

Jennie had gone to fetch the cream. The only other object on the table was a covered bowl. Thragun sniffed that—spices— Great-Aunt Amelie took the cover off.

"Why, it is a Christmas pudding! I thought that Mrs. Cobb had not yet begun to make such! And this one has been steamed ready for the table, though it is cold." Lady Ashley pulled the bowl closer.

"Oh, milady." Jennie was back with another bowl, the contents of which made Thragun's whiskers twitch a fraction. Certainly its contents were more to be desired than this Christmas pudding. "That was sent up from th' village just this evenin'. Thomas brought it in on th' cart from Windall. Cook, she an' Mis' Davis over at th' Jolly Boy 'as been for years now a-talkin' 'bout which Christmas pudding be the best—them with brandy or them with rum. So this year Mis' Davis up an' sent one of her'n over for to give us a taste like."

"Bring a plate, Jennie." Great Aunt sat up straighter. "And then turn the pudding out. We'll just see if Hob has a taste for a seasonal dainty."

So the table was set, the bowl of cream, the pudding on a plate. Under Lady Ashley's direction, the bits of rowan were placed around three sides of the offering allowing only the fourth to be open.

"Now we shall have to leave it to Hob. He has no desire to be seen, or so I was always told. Come—"

With Emmy before her with the lamp and Jennie still holding the toasting fork at ready to help her, Lady Ashley went slowly out. They had left Jennie's lantern sitting on the ledge of the cupboard shelf and Thragun remained where he was, on the table well away from the rowan.

With slitted eyes he looked to the fireplace. There had been more noise from the forepart of the house, not muffled by the length of passages and rooms in between. He thought that Hob was still busy at his destruction and that he was doing more than ever to cause all the damage he could as he went.

But after the others had left there was silence. What new mischief was the Khon about?

Out of the fireplace sped a shadow and Thragun subdued the hiss he had almost voiced. He did not know how the preparations Lady Ashley had made would act. But he sat up on his haunches and with his forepaws made signs in the air, following as best he could his memories of what was done to discourage a Khon in his old home.

It was Hob in form who squatted on the table top, grabbed the bowl of cream in both hands and held it high, drinking its contents in a single slurping gulp. Then he swung about to look at the pudding.

There was a crinkling of Hob's wrinkled face as if he were in pain and his two claw hands at the end of spider thin arms patted his protruding belly which looked as if he had already swallowed the bowl along with what it held.

Thragun did not hesitate:

"You are Hob, the thewada of this house—"

Hob's head was cocked to one side as if he did hear and understand, but his eyes were all for the pudding.

"Hob's Hole—Hob's own

From the roasting to the bone.

Them as sees, shall not look,

Them as blind, they shall be shook.

Sweep it up and stamp it down—

Hob shall clear it all around.

So Mote this be!"

Hob's one hand went out to the pudding, though his other still rubbed his middle as if to subdue some pain there.

"Hob's Hole alone—Hob shall hold it!"

Thragun snapped at a piece of the rowan in spite of the fact that it scratched his lips. With a jerk of his head as if he were disposing of a rat, he tossed that.

Hob threw up an arm but, by fortune, the rowan sped true, striking against that round ball of a stomach nor did it fall away.

With a screech Hob leapt up. One big foot touched rowan and he screeched again. Then he began to shake as if some giant hand had caught him and was determined to subdue all struggles.

Hob's mouth opened to the full extent as if half his jaw had become unhinged. Out from between his small fangs of teeth came a puff of sickly yellow as if somewhere within him there burned a fire and this was smoke. His head, flying back and forth from the violence of that shaking, sent a second puff and both struck full upon the top of the pudding.

Now that shivered and rocked. Thragun, not knowing just why he did it, threw a second sprig of rowan and that touched, not Hob, but the pudding.

There was a howl of dismay and defeat. Hob was loosed from the shaking, to crouch on the table. The pudding was gone. A shimmer of the yellow Hob had been made to disgorge hid it completely. That faded, seeming to sink into the ball of dried fruit and flour.

Hob, his head now in his hands, rocked back and forth. But Thragun pressed closer with a third sprig of rowan which he laid on the top of that ball. Only what stood there now was a teapot—a fine brown teapot, its lid crowned by a sprig of rowan also frozen in time and place.

The cat gave it two long sniffs. He could smell none of the evil that other pot had cloaked itself in. It must be true that the magic of this land was indeed more than even a Khon could fight.

Hob straightened, rubbed his stomach, and there was no longer any sign of pain on his withered face. With a swift bound he reached the fireplace and was gone into his own hidden ways again.

Thragun regarded the teapot critically. It was certainly far more innocent looking than it had been in its other existence, and by what all his senses told him its evil will was firmly and eternally confined. He yawned, feeling all the fatigue of the night, and jumped from the table.

The lantern flickered and went out. But the pudding pot remained to mystify Mrs. Cobb later that morning and many mornings to come.

 



 

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