Nine Threads of Gold

by Andre Norton

 

all.cats.are.gray.1953 fantastic universe

 

1st Published ~ In After the King (1992) Edited by Martin H. Greenberg, Published by TOR, HC, 0-312-85175-8, $22.95, 438pg ~ cover by Keith Parkinson

Available Now ~ In 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/short-stories/446-nine-threads-of-gold




Continued from ~ Nine Threads of Gold (pt. 2)

 

His hand had gone once more to the hilt of his dagger and he stared at Lethe as if he would have the truth even at a point of steel.

"It could be so."

It was Alana who came a step or so closer and looked up into Lethe's face.

"Lady, why would the demons want us who are here in this place--- unless to kill us”---she hesitated a second and the old fear came flooding back into her firelit eyes---“they did all the others? Lusta dreamed us here---but there were no demons waiting.”

"This was waiting, and perhaps your entrance here would open doors for them or something else." Lethe was searching---her senses weighing first the children and then the very walls about them. No, there had been no tampering save that she had caught this night. There was no taint of dark in this company.

"What lies here then?" flared Hurten. "The demons came upon us from the north; they are not of our kind. Perhaps"---his eyes narrowed---"they are of yours---lady." And there was little goodwill in the title he gave her.

"Before your demons," she answered him, "there were other powers abroad. Some were always of the Dark. Open your mind, youth: is this such a place as welcomes the Dire Shadows?"

For a moment there was a silence, Hurten's frown did not fade. Then tentatively his right hand arose between them and the fingers moved in a gesture that brought a sigh of relief from Lethe.

"Bite of iron, warrior." She held out her own hand. He hesitated, then drew his dagger. She deliberately touched the end of the blade, withstanding a stab of flame pain that was true fire. When she took her hand away and turned it over, she held it well into the light.

There was an angry red blotch on her pale skin. She endured the pain for a space, that they might see, and then willed healing into the skin.

"Cold iron.” Hurten looked down at his own weapon as if it possessed a potential unknown to him.

'The demons," Orffa broke in, "can die but from edge and point. Only the First Ones---" He drew a deep breath.

"Only those of the Right-Hand path," Marsila interrupted her brother, "cannot hold iron."

"And our wards still held here," Lethe pointed out, "Still there must be that which would put an end to weaving by destroying loom and weaver.”

"You speak of weaving," Marsila said then. "You are the weaver?"

"So it has been set upon me."

"It remains." Hurten turned to the earlier problem. "Lusta led us here, by whose will?"

"Who can tell that?" Lethe spoke wearily, for again the truth burdened her down.

'Will---will she be possessed again?" Marsila approached Lusta with caution. The younger girl appeared deep in sleep, unaware of all about her now.

"l have set guards," Lethe answered. "For now those will hold."

None of them questioned that---as if they avoided voicing doubts. Hurten settled by the fire, but not to sleep. Instead he brought from a belt pouch a whetstone, and with this he set about giving edge to his dagger, working as one who must occupy himself with even so small a preparation against trouble to come. Marsila dragged her pallet up beside Lusta's, just as Tyffan barricaded the girl on the other side.

Hurten's belt with its empty scabbard---without a sword---

Without a sword, that symbol of manhood for his race. Lethe once more closed her eyes, but her thoughts were awake. A sword---she resisted, having the feeling that she was being pushed too swiftly into decisions. It was not for her to deal with weapons as this land now knew them, but neither could she deny to others the safety a blade offer. However, this could wait until tomorrow. Hurten had stopped the push of the whetstone, returned it to his pouch, was stretching out to sleep.

Lethe lengthened the narrowest edge of thought as a field commander would dispatch a trained scout. The guards were firm, nothing tried them. Lusta? The girl was so deep in slumber that no invader could reach her. Safe? Were any of them safe?

Lusta had offered a gate to some old power---what of the other children? Lethe shrank from what she must do---this was something that could only be justified by dire danger. Did they face that?

She made her decision and began the search. Alana, one arm thrown about her little brother in constant protection---nothing there.

The shepherd twins? A hazy dream picture, partly shared, of a fair morning in home heights. Tyffan---dark shadows acreep---the beginning of a nightmare in which he struggled to reach a farmhouse where Lusta awaited him. That she could banish, and she did.

Marsila---fall woodlands in brilliant color, a sun-warmed morning---rightness and loving memory. Her brother---deep sleep as untroubled as Lusta's. Hurten---the sentry on the wall, a pressing need to hold off some threat that had not yet shown itself---a need the greater because he had no weapon, She had been right---this one needed the talisman of a blade.

Lethe searched memory. She had read them and there was no taint here. So assured, she could await the coming day.

They broke their morning fast with a rough mush of wild grain only made palatable by a handful of dried berries. Lethe waited until they were done before she spoke.

"You have two bows, two daggers among you---that is not enough."

Hurten laughed angrily. “The truth, Lady. But here there is no forge, nor are any of us smiths. Is there an enemy we can hope to plunder?"

"Come---"

Lethe led them back to the presence chamber, all, even Robar, trailing her. She came to face the wall behind the dais. There hung one of the time-ravished lengths of weaving. This was no tapestry like the others, rather the remains of what might once have been a banner.

So hard had time treated what lay here! However, she was not saddened, rather stirred by the need to be about her task. The chairs that had once stood against the wall were debris. But the long table there was intact, save it was covered with dust and splinters of wood.

She swept out with her staff, and the litter was lifted and blown away by a strong puff of breeze. Lethe pointed now to the frail banner.

With the staff she drew a careful outline around what hung there while she hummed---a faint drone of sound, like the sigh of wind in a wood. On the wall the banner moved. Dust motes shifted down, but none of the frail fabric parted. As a single piece it was loosed while her staff moved back and forth as might that of a shepherd guiding a flock around some danger. Down came the length of ancient weaving, to lie full-length on the table.

"Do not touch it!" she ordered. "That time is not yet. We have other needs."

Once more her staff moved, now pointing directly to the wall the banner had curtained. She spoke aloud in command, words that had not been uttered since the days of deep legend.

Cracks appeared between stones, lines formed a doorway. That opened.

“Come!" Lethe waved them on.

The staff itself gave forth the light here, bringing answering gleams from racks, from shelves for storage. Here were weapons. She heard a cry from Hurten as he pushed forward, his hand out to the hilt of a sword. He stood looking down at it in joyful wonder. The others ventured farther in, eyeing what was there as if they did not quite dare touch. Then Orffa took up a sword, and Tyffan, after glancing to Lethe as if she might forbid it even now, closed hand upon the haft of a double-bladed axe.

A moment later Hurten turned accusingly to the woman. "What folly is this? No true steel---" He had been running his hand along the blade of his choice.

She laughed. "Cold iron is not to be found here, young warrior. These are forged of battle silver, but none the less sharp and strong.

For a moment it seemed as if he might dispute that, then he nodded.

"To each people their own secrets. This balances well at least." He swung it in a practice thrust.

“No—no---Robar!”

Alana was in a tug of war with her brother. Face red with rising anger, he was struggling to get full hold on a dagger near long enough to be deemed a short sword.

"Want---want---now! Robar wants---!"

Alana seemed unable to break his grip. Truas caught the little boy by the shoulders from behind.

"Here now, young'un, that's naught to play with. Give it to Alana an'---" He had turned his head to view the racks of weapons but was plainly baffled as to what might be offered as a counter to Robar's first choice.

' 'Want!" Robar howled and then aimed a kick at his sister that struck home before Truas could pull him out of' reach.

"Robar---no---!" There was an expression of fear on Alana's face.

"Give it to Alana, please!"

As the boy fought and wriggled to free himself, Alana pried his fingers loose one by one. His screaming was enough to bring all the others to the battle. Once his sister had forced one hand open, Robar swung that up and drew his nails down her cheek. She cried out and jerked back, her eyes wide, staring at her brother as if she had never seen him before.

Marsila pushed her aside, but it was Hurten who took command:

"Give him to me!" And when Truas had surrendered the still wildly fighting boy into his hold he added, “Get that thing away from him!"

In spite of having to ward off kicks, which, to Lethe, appeared too well aimed to be allied with blind rage, Truas was able to capture the dagger. Then Hurten carried the still struggling child out of the room.

Alana's whole body was shaking. Tears diluted the blood from the scratches on her cheeks.

"He---he never did that before. Oh, Robar!" She pushed aside Marsila and ran after Hurten and her brother.

There was a subdued quiet. Lethe stooped to pick up the disputed weapon. To both her eyes and her inner touch it was no more than it appeared to be. For a moment a wisp of thought had troubled her. But the scene could have risen simply from the fact that an over-guarded and indulged child---for Alana's care was easy to see---had wanted a choice like the other boys. He was passing out of babyhood and perhaps had been unconsciously resentful of Alana's protectiveness for some time.

The others made their choices quickly. Marsila chose four bows and matching quivers of silver-tipped arrows, gathering them into an unwieldy bundle. Lusta and the others selected daggers, testing the points on fingertips. But for major weapons the twins wanted short-shafted javelins, taking a trio of these apiece. Tyffan held to the axe, Orffa the sword with a belt and sheath to go with it.

Lethe was interested in their choices. Each must have chosen those arms with which they felt the most comfortable. She replaced the dagger Robar had clung to in the rack, and followed the company out. Behind her the door closed and once more disappeared.

Marsila laid the bows down on the table, taking care not to disturb the banner. She motioned to Lusta and Orffa, and they each chose one. Then she selected hers, leaving the other.

“Hurten’s”---she nodded to that---“a far better one than he has, and one to serve him well."

Alana sat by the pallet when they reentered the kitchen. Robar lay there curled in himself sniffling. As the others drew near his sister pulled at his shoulder.

"Robar?" Her voice both admonished and encouraged.

He sat up. The anger had gone out of his eyes. Instead tears marked his cheeks.

"Sorry---Robar's sorry." His voice was hardly above a whisper.

Alana smiled. "It's true, he is sorry."

Marsila went closer, “Very well, Robar. But being sorry does not take away the scratches on your sister's cheek, now does it?"

He smeared both hands across his face. "Robar's sorry," he repeated woefully, Alana caught him in a tight hug.

"Of course, Alana knows, Robar's really sorry."

Tyffan, fingering the new axe, had seemed to pay little attention. Now he said:

“Tis a fair day out. Maybe there will be a beast in the grasslands---easy to be downed with new bows."

"Of course!" Hurten appeared with the bow Marsila had left for him. “Get us perhaps that yearling bull calf we saw two days ago.”

Lethe watched them scatter to what must have been the occupations they had settled to since they had come to the keep. In the day there was no fear of the outlands.

Even Robar shared in the gathering of supplies, disputing with a number of angry squirrels for the harvest of fallen nuts, while his sister and Tristy beat the tree branches to bring more down.

Lusta was using her new dagger to cut raged stands of wild grain still slippery from yesterday's storm. Her harvesting sent grain-eating birds flying, and she turned to her bow. Though it was apparent she was no well-trained archer, she did not always miss.

Lethe left the scene of labor and followed the river, pausing now and then to stand, staff in hand, spying out toward the hills in her own fashion. But if Lusta had nearly opened a door to something of the Dark last night, it was not to be sensed now.

Though her warning sense kept guard, her main thoughts turned to what had drawn her here and why. These children seedlings, threads---hers would be the planting, the weaving. She tightened hold on her staff. After all the years to have once more a purpose!

Lethe returned to the keep at midday to stand again in the presence chamber, looking down at the ghostly banner. Her fingers moved as they might, without direction but from long habit. Slowly she turned to survey the huge chamber. Where there was desolation---yes, there would be life again.

In the kitchen was truly the bustle of life. Hurten had indeed brought down the bull calf and roughly butchered it. And now it lay bundled in its own spotted hide; containers of bark, even large leaves pinned together with thorns, were full of the last of the berries, nuts, edible roots, all of which Lusta was sorting with the help of Alana; while Marsila had brought in a string of ducks.

Hurten appeared again with the twins, and this time they had not plundered the moldering furniture in the other rooms, but had good loads of wood, storm gleanings---though these must be set to dry.

They shared the work as if they had done this many times before, and Lethe nodded. Already these were bonded after their own fashion; her task would be the lighter.

Through her self-congratulation broke a cry of fear. Alana had pulled away from the table.

"Robar---where is Robar? Tyffan, did he follow you again? Where is he?”

"Never saw him." There was an odd note in the older boy's voice. "What do you mean, followed me?" He was so quickly angry, as if he had been accused of some wrongdoing.

Lethe tensed. Now there was something awakening here, hostile to the accord that had lulled her.

Orffa was also showing signs of anger. "Little pest, always creeping around where he shouldn't be," he muttered.

Alana was confronting Tyffan. There was fear but anger also in the words she flung at him.

"When you passed us you said you were going to the pond. You know how he loves to go there."

Tyffan shook his head. "He wasn't with me, I tell you."

She turned then on Orffa. "You were hunting up on the hill, you must have seen him."

“I never saw the brat. He's always in some trouble or other. Best tie him to you and be done with it, trader trash!"

"Mind your mouth!" Marsila snapped at her brother. "If Robar did go to the pool---“

Alana let out a keening cry and darted for the doorway, Marsila but a step or so behind her. A crash sounded from the table: Lusta had dropped one of the metal bowls. Hurten caught Orffa by the shoulder and jerked him around to face him.

"That pool is deep, Orffa. Also, there are no 'trader trash' here. Keep that tongue of yours clean!"

Orffa's face was scarlet as he jerked free from the other's grip.

"I never saw the brat!"

Lethe shivered. She had been a sentry---surely she would have sensed evil in the valley this morning if it had lain in waiting there. The contentment that had been here only moments earlier was shattered as if she had willed it away herself.

Lusta? Her gift; that was understandable. Robar? Lethe had sensed no power in him, but he was so young a child that at his age he would have very few natural defenses. Robar---!

Not the pool, no. What was wanted for Robar was not danger for him, but through him. And what was wanted must lie within these walls.

"Fool!" Hurten snarled at Orffa. The younger boy's hand flew to his sword hilt. Now the twins moved in and Tyffan was rounding the table to join them. Lusta stood with her hands pressed to her whitened cheeks.

"Keep your tongue to yourself!" Orffa cried. "Do not try to play the high lord with me! I do not know where the brat went---"

"He came here," Truas said. “Saw him on the bridge.”

Orffa showed teeth. “Why didn't you speak up before, thickhead---or were you so gagged with the dirty wool you couldn't?"

"Here now," Tristy answered before his brother. He still held the bloody knife he had been using on Hurten's kill. "What's gotten into you, Orffa?"

“Orffa?" He made a near threat of his own name. 'Who are you to name me so familiarly, beast-keeper? I am of the blood of Ruran who was lord---"

'Stop!" Lethe's staff was between the boys. Her eyes had narrowed as she looked from one furious scowl to another. "You saw Robar come here? Then let us find him." Either the tone of her voice or some effect of the staff brought them together again---temporarily.

' 'We'll search---" Hurten agreed.

"Perhaps there is no need to go far." Lethe beckoned to Lusta and asked, “Which of those boxes of nuts there did Robar fill?"

Lusta shivered, and her hands whipped behind her back. "No! No!" She turned her head from side to side, like a small trapped animal gnawed by fear.

"Yes!" There was no escaping that order.

Lusta's right arm moved outward, her fingers hooked like claws. She was staring down at the array of the morning's harvest with fear-rounded eyes. Her hand swung, steadied over one of those containers.

Instantly Lethe raised the staff and touched the crude basket.

She had their full attention now, their quarreling forgotten. Her grip on the staff was loose enough to allow it play, swing of its own accord. She followed that direction, the others close behind her.

Back into the presence chamber---to the wall of the hidden room. She had been a fool to underestimate this other power. That early scene with Robar in there---why had she been so blind?

She strove within her to trace, to know---

"There must be all of you here. Find Marsila---Alana---"

Lethe did not look to see if she had been obeyed, but she heard the shuffle of badly worn boots across the hall.

"Lady." Lusta had crept to her side. “Lady I am afraid---I cannot---I do not know what you would have me do."

"Nor do I know yet what has to be done, child. As for can and cannot, Lusta, that will wait upon what we learn."

She fought within her to set aside all the lives about her, to think only in terms of her weapon---no blade nor axe, spear nor bow, only what was her own. As she wove life, so now she must weave another sort of web, one to be both defense and trap.

"Robar! Please.” There was a tug at her arm. "Is Robar truly here?" Lethe looked around quickly---not only Alana was here, but all the rest.

She began a chant, the words issuing stiffly from her lips as if it were so long since they had been used that they had grown as rusty as untended armor. Once more the concealed door opened.

Around them the globe lights dimmed as if their radiance was being sucked out of them.

Lethe threw out her arm to catch Alana, who would have darted before her.

"Robar!" his sister screamed, and then her voice was muffled, for which Lethe was briefly grateful.

The light of the staff flared. In the armory a shadow sprang forth from shadows---and the light caught on a bared blade.

Lethe's weapon swung down between her body and that intended blow. Robar crouched. His face was not that of a child. That which had entered him had molded his features, was blazing from his eyes.

The staff swung, pointed. Sparks formed into a tongue of light, but that was fended, curled back, before it touched the child.

“Join!" Lethe's other hand moved as her voice rose above the insane shrieks from the small figure before her. Spittle flecked from his lips. Dread intelligence stared grimly and grotesquely from his eyes.

"Join!" Her free hand was gripped, she felt the surge of energy, then came a second and a third---that which had first brought them together was still in force.

The staff warmed. The thread of solid light from it was still held away from Robar, but the space was less and less.

"You are Robar!" Lethe called upon the power that lay in names. "You are one with this company. You are Robar!"

Small lips twisted into a sneer.

"Fratch!"

Lethe was prepared. That challenger name did not surprise her. As there were the weavers among the kin, so there had been destroyers. But time was long, and that which destroyed never grew without feeding. Had it been the invaders who had fed this one awake again?

"You are Robar!"

She sought the Touch, to seek out, to shift one personality from another. The light spear was now less than a finger-width from the grimacing child.

"Robar!" That was meant as a call, a summoning. At the same time she drew deeper on the energy fed her by the others.

The light touched the child's forehead. His features writhed and he howled, a cry no human could have uttered. Then---it was as if something that had been confined in too small a prisoning burst forth.

Robar fell like a crumpled twist of harvest grain. Above his body wavered a mist into which bored the spear of light. Then the mist spiraled downward upon itself until it was but a grey blot which the blue bolt licked into nothingness.

"Robar!" Alana threw herself at her brother, pulling him close, twisting her own body about him as if to wall him from all harm.

"What---what happened, lady?" Tyffan asked hoarsely.

“That was a shadow, of something which should have died long ago.” Lethe tried to take a step and tottered.

Strong young arms closed about her as Hurten and Marsila moved in. "A shadow of a will. First it tried to fasten onto Lusta, for her gift offered it power. Then it turned to Robar because he was too young to have those safeguards which come through living, Fratch---Styreon who was”---she addressed the empty air---“you were ever greedy for that which was not yours---nor shall it ever be!"

They went out of the armory, Orffa carrying Robar, who lay limp in his arms, Alana seemingly content to have it so. Marsila and Hurten kept their hold on Lethe, the end of her staff dragging on the floor, though she still kept it within her grasp.

Here was the table on which lay the banner. What was to be done was clear now, and the sooner done the better. Lethe spoke to Lusta:

"This is a beginning. Sister, take your dagger, that which is of the great forging, and not made of fatal iron, and cut from the head of each of these comrade-kin of yours a lock.”

They asked no questions, and submitted to Lusta's knife. For the first time set aside her staff. From her belt purse she brought forth a large needle, which glistened gold in the light. This she threaded with a strand of hair and set about weaving it into the webbing as one would darn a very old and precious thing. So she did again and again as they watched. And with each new strand she repeated aloud the name of him or her to which it had belonged, forming so a chant.

Thus Lethe wrought in moments lifted out of time, for none spoke nor moved, only watched. When she was done they looked upon a length of silver-gold on which faint patterns formed, changed, reformed, growing ever the stronger.

Lethe withdrew her needle. “One is combined of many, even as you united in your flight out of death, as you me of your strength to free Robar---you are indeed one.

"But from that one weaving there will come much which is to be welcomed---and time will welcome it and you.”

It is told that in the fell days when the Ka-sati had laid totally waste the land and those of the barbarian blood would raise a temple to the Eternal Darkness, there came a company out of the northern hills, riding under a banner bearing nine stripes of gold. Those who bore it were of the blood of legends and what they wrought was to the glory of earth and sky, flood and flame---the darkness being utterly blinded by their light.

 



 

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