Noble Warrior

by Andre Norton

 

all.cats.are.gray.1953 fantastic universe

 

1st PublishedCatfantastic I (1989) Edited by Andre Norton & Martin H. Greenberg, Published by DAW, PB, 0-886-77355-5, $3.95, 320pg ~ 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/315-noble-warrior




 

Emmy squinted at the stitch she had just put in the handkerchief. Ivy had curtained almost half of the window, to leave the room in greenish gloom. Too long, she would have to pick it out. On such a grayish day she wanted a candle. Only even to think of that must be a sin. Miss Wyker was very quick to sniff outsins. Emmy squinted harder. It was awfully easy to sin when one was around Miss Wyker.

Not for the first or not even the hundredth time she puzzled as to why Great-Aunt Amelie had asked Miss Wyker to Hob's Green. Who could be ill without feeling worse to see about that long narrow face with the closed buttonhole of a mouth, and mean little eyes on either side of a long, long nose. Elephant nose! Emmy's hands were still while she thought of elephants, big as Jasper's cottage. Father said that they had great seats large enough to hold several men strapped on their backs and one rode them so to go tiger hunting.

She rubbed her hand across her aching forehead as she thought of father. If he were here, he would send old Wyker packing.

Emmy ran a tongue tip over her lips. She was thirsty-but to leave her task to even get a drink of water might get her into trouble. She gave an impatient jerk and her thread broke. Before she could worry about that, sounds from the graveled drive which ran beyond the window brought her up on her knees to look out. Hardly anyone now used the front entrance drive. This was the trap from the inn, with Jeb. Beside him sat a stranger, a small man with a bushy brown beard.

The trap came to a halt and the small man climbed down from the seat. Jeb handed down a big basket to the man who gave him a short nod before disappearing under the overhang of the doorway. Emmy dropped her sewing on the window seat to run across the room as the knocker sounded. She was cautious about edging open the door of the sitting room to give herself just a crack to see through.

The knocker sounded three times before Jennie the housemaid hurried by, patting down her cap ribbons and looking all a-twitter. It had been so long since anyone had been so bold as to use the knocker. Nobody but Dr. Riggs ever came that way any more, and he only in the morning.

Emmy heard a deep voice, but she could not quite make out the words. Then, as quick as if it were meant as an answer, there sounded a strange cry. Emmy jumped, the door opened a good bit wider than was wise.

At least she could see Jennie show the visitor to the library where Dr. Riggs was always escorted by Miss Wyker to have a ceremonial glass of claret when his visit to his patient was over. The stranger had taken the covered basket with him.

Jennie went hurrying up the stairs to get Miss Wyker. To speed her along sounded another of those wailing cries.

Emmy pulled the door nearer shut, but her curiosity was fully aroused. Who had come visiting and why? And whatever could be in that basket?

She heard the determined tread of Miss Wyker and saw a stiff back covered with the ugliest of gray dresses also disappear into the parlor. Should she try to cross the hall in hope of seeing more of the visitor? She was so tired of one day being like another-all as gray as Miss Wyker's dress-that this was all very exciting. Before she had quite made up her mind, Jennie came in a hurry, probably called by the bell. She stood just within the library door, then backed out to head for the morning room where Emmy had been isolated for numberless dull hours of the day since Great-Aunt had taken ill.

"You-Miss Emmy," Jennie was breathless as she usually was when Miss Wyker gave orders. "They want to see you-right now- over there-" she jerked a thumb toward the library.

Emmy was across the hall and into the room before Jennie had disappeared back down the hall. As she came in, there sounded once more that startling cry. It had come from the big covered basket which was rocking a little back and forth where it stood on the floor.

"This is the child-" Miss Wyker's sharp voice was plainly disapproving.

The brown-bearded man looked down at Emmy. A big grin split that beard in the middle.

"So-you be th' Cap'n's little maid, be you? Must have grown a sight since he was last a-seein' you. Tol' it as how you was a mite younger."

The Cap'n-that was father. For a moment, forgetting Miss Wyker, Emmy burst out with a question of her own.

"Where is he? Please, did his ship come in? Truly?" There was so much Emmy wanted to say that the words stuck in her throat unable to push out clearly.

"Emmiline-this is Mr. Salbridge-manners, IF you please!"

Emmy swallowed and made a bob of a curtsey, one eye on Miss Wyker, knowing that she would be in for a scold when this visitor left.

"Very pleased to make your acquaintance, sir," she parroted the phrase which had been drilled into her.

Mr. Salbridge bowed in return. "Well, now, Miss Emmy, seems like we should be no strangers. Ain't I heard th' Cap'n talk of you by th' hour? Your servant, Miss Emmy. It does a man good to see as how you is doin' well, all shipshape an' tight along the portholes as it were. You probably ain't heard o' me-but I has been a-sailin' with th' Cap'n for a right many years now-would be there on board th' Majestic yet, only I had me a bit o' real luck, which gave me a snug purse, an' was minded to come home along of that there windfall. They's none o' us as young as we once was an' me, I got someone as has been a-waiting for me to come home a longish time.

"Th' Cap'n, he gave me a right hearty good-bye but not afore he asked somethin' o' me an' I'm right proud that he did that. I was to see his little maid an' bring 'er somethin' as was give to him by a princess as heard he had a little daughter to home. He~ was mighty helpful to her paw an' she was grateful to him in return, give him somethin' th' which nobody here at home has seen-somethin' as has lived in a palace right a'long of her. Look you here, Miss Emmy, what do you think o' this?"

He knelt awkwardly on one knee to open the basket. For a minute nothing happened. Then there jumped out of that carrier the oddest animal Emmy had ever seen. It looked like a cat, only it was not gray striped. Rather its face, legs, and the lower part of its slender back were of a brown as dark as Mr. Salbridge's beard, while the rest of it was near the color of the thick cream Mrs. Goode skimmed off the milk. And its eyes-its eyes were a bright blue!

It stood by the side of the basket, its head slowly moving as it stared at each of them in turn, Mr. Salbridge, Miss Wyker, who had drawn back a pace or two and was frowning darkly, and the longest at Emmy.

"Miss Emmy, this here's Thragun Neklop, that there means Noble Warrior. He's straight out o' th' king's own palace. They thinks a mighty lot o' those like him thereabouts. No one as is common gets to have these here cats a-livin' in their houses. The Cap'n now, he was favored when they said this one might go to be with his little missy back in his own country. Yes, this here is a very special cat-"

The cat opened its mouth and gave a short, sharp cry which was certainly not like the meow which Emmy expected. Then its head turned so that it looked directly and unblinkingly at Miss Wyker and it hissed, its ears flattening a little. Miss Wyker's frown now knotted all her long face together.

Emmy squatted down so that she was nearly face to face with the furred newcomer.

"Thragun Neklop." She tried to say the strange words carefully. The cat turned its head again, to stare boldly at her. There was no hissing this time.

"That there is a power name, Miss Emmy. His paw was guard o' th' king. Them as lives there, they do not take kindly to dogs-that's their religion like. But cats, them they train to be their guards. An' mighty good they be at that, too, if all th' stories they tell is true."

The cat arose and came to Emmy. She put out her hand, not quite daring to lay a finger on that sleek brown head. The cat sniffed her fingers and then bumped his head against her hand.

"Well, now, that do beat all. Never saw him do that 'ceptin' to the princess when she said good-bye," commented Mr. Salbridge. "Maybe he thinks as how you're the princess now. Good that'll be. Now-servant, Mistress, servant, Miss Emmy." He made a short bow. "I needs must be gitting along. Have to catch th' York stage."

"Oh," Emmy was on her feet, "please-thank you! And father-is he coming home, too?"

Mr. Salbridge shook his head. "He's got the voyage to make and the Majestic warn't due to raise anchor for maybe two months when I left him. He'll be coming through, jus' as soon as he can-"

"It's such a long time to wait-" Emmy said. "But, oh, please, Mr. Salbridge, I do thank you for bringing Thragun Neklop."

"My pleasure, Miss-" The rest of what he might have said was drowned out by another of those strange wails.

Emmy hurried behind Mr. Salbridge who strode for the door. Miss Wyker made no attempt to see him away, as she did the doctor when he came calling. Emmy followed with more eager questions which he answered cheerfully. Yes, the Cap'n was feeling well and doin' well for hisself, too. An' he would be home again before long. He was jus' glad to be of service.

While he climbed back into the rig and drove off down the driveway, Emmy waved vigorously. She was startled by a very harsh piercing cry and she ran back to the library.

Miss Wyker, poker in hand, that deep scowl still on her face, was advancing on Thragun. The cat stood his ground; now that scream dropped to a warning growl. His long slender tail was puffed out to twice its usual size and his ears were flattened to his skull.

"Dirty animal!" Miss Wyker's voice was as angry as Thragun's war cry. "Get in there, you filthy beast!" She poked with the iron and Thragun went into a crouch.

"Thragun!" Emmy ran forward, standing between the war ready cat and Miss Wyker.

"Get that foul thing into the basket-at once, do you hear me?"

Emmy had witnessed Miss Wyker's anger a good many times, but never had she made such a scene as this before.

"Don't hit him!" Emmy caught at the cat. A paw flashed out and drew a red stripe across her hand. But in spite of that the little girl grabbed him up and put him into the basket. "He wasn't doing any harm!" she cried out, braver as she spoke up for Thragun than she had ever been for herself.

In answer Miss Wyker used the poker to flip the lid down on the basket.

"Fasten it!" she ordered, already heading toward the bell pull on the wall.

Emmy's hands shook. She had always been afraid of loud angry voices, and lately she jumped at every sound, especially when she was never sure when Miss Wyker was going to come up behind her with some punishment already in mind. She had done so many things wrong ever since Great-Aunt Amelie had taken ill. Emmy never even saw her any more. Nobody seemed to see much of Lady Ashely now. Miss Wyker was always there at the bedroom door, to take the trays cook sent up with the special beef jelly or a new egg done to the way Great-Aunt Amelie always liked them.

Even at night Jennie was not called to sit with her. Miss Wyker had a trundle bed moved into the room and spent her own night hours there. When Jennie or Meggy came to clean, she was always standing there watching them. Meggy said, " 'as 'ow they was goin' to 'urt th' old lady-as iffen anybody ever would!"

"Yes, m'm?" Jennie now stood in the half open door.

"Take this beast out to the stable at once! I do not want to see it about again!"

"No!" Courage which she not been able to summon for herself brought words to Emmy. "Father sent him to me. He's Thragun Neklop an' a prince! The man said so!" She caught the handle of the big basket in both hands and held it as tightly as she could.

Miss Wyker, her long face very red, laid the poker across the seat of the nearest chair before taking long strides to stand directly over Emmy. Her hand swept up, to come down across Emmy's cheek, the blow so sudden and stinging that the child staggered backward, involuntarily losing her hold on the basket. Miss Wyker had scolded her many times since the first hour when she had arrived and doffed her helmet of a bonnet to take over rulership of Hob's Green. But until this moment she had never touched Emmy.

"Take that beast out to the stable," Miss Wyker repeated, "and be quick about it. Animals are filthy, they have no place in a well-run household. And you," she rounded on Emmy who was standing staring at her, one hand pressed to her cheek where those long fingers had left visible marking, "go to your room instantly, you impudent girl! You are wholly selfish, unbiddable, lazy and a handful! Poor Lady Ashely may have been hastened to her bed of illness by your thoughtless impudence! Poor lady, she has had a great deal to burden her these past years but there will be a good many changes made shortly-and your conduct, Miss, will not be the least of those! Go!"

So sharp and loud was that command that it seemed to sweep Emmy out of the room. She hesitated for one moment on the foot of the stairs to watch Jennie's apron strings and the tail of her skirt vanish toward the end of the hall. The maid had taken the basket. What was going to happen to Thragun Neklop? Emmy's tears spilled over the fingers which still nursed the cheek which was beginning to ache as she went up the stairs slowly, one reluctant foot at a time.

There was a strong smell of horses, but there were other scents which were new. Thragun stretched himself belly down in the basket to look through a spread in the wicker weave which had served him for some time now as a window on a very strange and everchanging world. He saw an expanse of stone paved yard and there was a flutter of pigeons about a trough out of which water was being slopped by a young man whose shirt sleeves were rolled clear to the shoulder. Thragun sniffed-water-never before had he been kept shut up to receive food and water only at the pleasure of another. However, if this must be so for some reason he had not yet discovered, then let those who were to minister to him, as was correct, be brought to attention of their duty.

He voiced a call-cry which in his proper home would have brought at least two maids and perhaps a serving slave of the first rank to answer and make proper apologetic submission, letting him out of this strange litter and treating him as Thragun Neklop should be. Was he not second senior of the Princess Suphorn's own household?

The young man turned his head toward the basket. However, he made no attempt to come and act in the proper fashion. This time Thragun gave a truly angry cry to inform this odd looking servant that his superior wanted full attention to his desires. The young man had filled two buckets with water which sloshed back and forth, wetting the yard stones, as he came. Thragun waited, but the slave made no attempt to approach. Instead, inside this place smelling of horses, he was starting to pass Thragun's cage when there was a voice from the general gloom behind.

"Asa, you lunkhead, you messin' with th' Knight agin?" The voice was drowned out then by the shrill squeal of an aroused stallion. Then there were whinneys and the sound of horses moving restlessly.

Asa moved out of the cat's sight even though Thragun turned in the basket and tried to see through another small opening in the wicker. That was too narrow, even though he had been working on it with explorative claws for several days.

He heard two voices making odd noises, some of which he recognized. So did the grooms soothe and tend their charges in the royal stable. Apparently even in this strange land horses were properly cared for. If that much was known, why were cats not properly attended?

Heavy footsteps came toward the basket. Thragun waited. There was more than just hunger and thirst to mark the change in his life now-there was a strange unpleasant feeling. The hair along his spine and his tail lifted a little, his ears flattened.

He was Thragun Neklop-Noble Warrior, acknowledged guardian of a princess. It had been his duty and his pleasure to patrol palace gardens at night's coming, to make sure that nothing dark or threatening dared venture there. Had he not in his first year killed one of the serpent ones who had been about to set fang in the princess' hand when she had reached around the rocks to recover her bracelet? Perhaps he had not sprung on a thief to rip open his throat as had Thai Shan, the mightiest of them all, trusted warrior for the king. But he knew what must be

"So this 'ere's th' beastie? That there Wyker's got a wicked tongue an' a worse eye, that one! Jennie says that this was brot 'ere special-for Miss Emmy-present from 'er paw. So do we do what that long-nosed witch wants, then what do we say when th' Cap'n comes home an' says where is what 'e sent? An' who, I'm askin', made 'er th' Lady 'ere? M' wage is paid by th' Lady Ashely as 'as been since I was six an' came a-llelpin' for m' paw. I takes 'er Ladyship's orders, an' that's th' tight an' right o' it!"

"She's got 'er a thing 'bout cats. Th' moggy to th' kitchen disappeared. It showed claw to that one first time it saw 'er when she came down givin' orders right an' left to Cook 'erself. Then come two days past and moggy was gone. Saw 'er a-talkin' to Rog out in th' garden-'im 'as no feeling for beasties. But he 'ad 'im a sixpence down to the Arms that week. An' sixpences don't just grow in that there garden he's supposed to be a-planting of."

"So-"

There was a moment of quiet. Thragun's eyes were hardly more than slits, and with his ears so flat he looked almost like one of the big carved stone garden snakes on which he used to sun himself in the old days when all was well with his world.

Something deep in him stirred. Once before he had felt its like and that was when he was shedding the last of his kitten fur to take on the browning of his mask, tail, and four feet. His mother had gathered up her family just at twilight one night-there were the three of them, Rannar, his brother, and Su Li, his sister. They had followed their mother into a far part of the largest garden. There, trees and vines and full formed shrubs had grown so closely together there they had formed a wall and such a one as only the most supple of cats could get through. There was something in the heart of that miniature jungle-a gray stone place fashioned as if two of the Naga Serpents had faced one another before a wall, with another piece of wall above which they supported on their heads. They were very old; there was the green of small growth on their weathered scales.

Mother had seated herself before them, her kittens a little behind her. Then she had called. The sound she made was the sort to stiffen one's back fur, made claws ache to be unsheathed. Something appeared between the serpents, under the roof they supported. Mother had sat in silence. Only they were not alone, cat and, kittens. Something had surveyed them with cold eyes, and colder thoughts-yet they remained very still and did not run even though they all smelled the fear which was a part of this meeting.

That which had come, and which they had never seen clearly, went. With mother, the kittens scrambled into the freedom of the real garden again. However, from that moment Thragun knew the stench of fear, and that wrongness which is a part of evil to be ever after sensed by those who had met it. Also, he had learned the warning which came before battle to those born to be fighters and protectors.

These two who stood over his basket now did not radiate that smell. But that female in the house did. Thragun knew that it was of her that they spoke now. He had come to this place because his princess had asked him to do so. She had explained to him that there was a great debt lying on her because the man from the far country had saved her father. She had learned that this man had a daughter, and now she wished Thragun to be to that daughter even as he was to her, a noble warrior to be ever her shield and her defense. Knowing that all debts must be paid, Thragun had come, though there were times when he wished only to sit and wail his loneliness to the world.

The man who had taken him by the princess' orders had always sought him out, if he was near, when those times came upon Thragun. He had talked to him, stroked him, spoken of his daughter and the old house where she lived with a kinswoman, waiting for the day when the man's duty would be fully done and he might return himself to be with them. And Thragun understood-to the man, his daughter was a treasure precious above anything in the king's palace.

Now what he felt was that need to be alert before danger, and behind it there was the faint, bitter smell of evil, sly and cunning evil, which could and did slip through the world like one of the serpents-which-werenot-Nagas. He was a warrior and this was the enemy's country through which he must go as silently as wind, as aware as that which hungers greatly. Now he must seem to be as one who had no daggers on the feet, teeth waiting in his jaws. With his mouth he shaped a cry such as a lost kitten might give.

"Like as th' beastie's hungry, Ralf-"

"No one's tellin' me wot is an' 'tisn't right!"

There was a sudden movement and the basket lid swung up. Thragun sat up, his tail top curled properly over his front toes, his unblinking blue eyes regarding the two of them.

The man beside Asa was short and thin and smelled strongly of horse sweat. With his black hair and dark skin he looked almost like one of the stable slaves back in the land where things were done properly. There was none of the evil odor clinging to him, nor to the boy either.

There was a long drawn noise from the man which was not a word, but plainly an exclamation of surprises. He squatted down on his heels, his face not far above Thragun's own.

"Blue eyes," that was the boy. " 'E don't look like any moggy as I ever saw-"

"Sssssisss-" The man held out his hand and slowly, as if he were dealing with one of his horse charges. "You sure be a different one."

Thragun sniffed at the knuckles of the hand offered him. There were smells in plenty, but none were cold or threatening. He ventured a small sound deep in his throat.

"You be a grand one, ben't you! Asa, get yourself over an' speak up to Missus Cobb. She's already got a hankerin' for moggys an' she'll give you somethin' for this fine fellow."

The boy disappeared. Thragun decided to take a chance. Moving warily, with an eye continually on the man, he jumped out of the basket, still facing the small man.

"Yis-" that almost was a hiss again. "You ain't no common moggy." His eyebrows drew together in a frown. "I thinks as 'ow th' Cap'n, he mustta thought as 'ow you was right for Miss Emmy-she likin' beasties so well. An' th' Cap'n sure ain't goin' to take it calm if you go a-missin'. "

Standing up, the man rubbed his bristly chin.

"Trouble is, that ole she-devil up to th' house, she's doin' all th' talkin' these days. We don't git to see our Lady a-tall-jus' tell us, they do-that fine gentlemun o' a doctor, an' Mr. Crisp, th' agent-that our lady can't be bothered by anythin' now she is so bad took. An' Miss Emmy, she ain't got no chance t' say nothin'. Th' Cap'n so far away an' nobody knows when he's coming back agin. It ain't got a good smell 'bout all this, that it ain't. So," he leaned back against the wall of a stall, a proud horse head raised over his shoulder to regard Thragun also.

"Soo-" the man repeated, one hand raised to scratch between the large bright eyes of the horse, "we 'as us a thin' as needs thinkin' on. Now was you," Thragun congratulated himself that he had indeed found a very sensible man here, "to git otta that there basket an' disappear-'ow are you goin' to be found-with these 'ere stables as full of holes and 'idey places as a bit o' cheese. An' out there-" he waved one hand toward the open door, "there's a garden an' beyond that, woods-Our lady, she don't allow no huntin' an' them two what wants to answer fur her-they ain't changed that-yet. So supposin', Rog, 'e comes 'long for t' see t' you an' he finds that there basket busted open an' you gone--might be 'e'd just put somethin' in his pocket and say as 'ow 'e did as 'e was told-"

"Now," the man raised his voice and caught up a broom. He aimed a blow at Thragun-well off target and yelled, "Git you out, you many critter, we don't want th' likes of you a hangin' 'round, no ways we don't."

Thragun leaped effortlessly to the top of a stall partition, but he made no effort to go farther for a moment. Then he walked leisurely along that narrow path to a place from which he could jump again, this time to a cross bean. At the same moment Asa returned, a small bundle in his hand.

"Ralf, what you be about-"

The man rounded on him. "Me? I 'as been a-chasin' a beast what 'as no place 'ere. An' don't you forget that, lad."

Asa laughed, then darted into the stall where Thragun had made himself comfortable. Flipping open the handkerchief, Asa turned out a chunk of grayish meat, still dripping from the boiling pan, and a wedge of cheese. He hacked the meat into several large chunks with a knife he took from his pocket and crumbled the cheese, leaving the bounty spread out on the napkin well within reach of Thragun. The cat was already licking the meat inquiringly when Asa returned with a cracked cup in which there was water.

"Couldn' get milk," he said as he set the cup down. "Missus Cobb, she's mad as a cow wot's lost 'er calf. Old Pickle-Face is a-giving' orders agin. No tea for Miss Emmy 'cause she's been a-askin' for th' cat. When Pickle-Face tol' her that 'e was gone for good, she stiffed up an' hit the old besom, then said as 'ow her paw would 'ave th' law on Pickle-Face for gettin' rid o' th' cat. She would not ask pardon, so she's not to 'ave no vittles 'cept dry bread and water 'til she gits down on her two knees an' asks for it."

"I'll be a-thinkin' that little Miss is na goin' to 'ave so 'ard of it," Ralf said. Thragun snarled. He had somehow got another whiff of that evil smell. Though the words these two stable slaves used to each other were totally foreign, he could pick out thoughts like little flashes of pictures. Not all the temple and palace fourfooted guards could do that.

But to Thragun it had become increasingly easy over the years.

Asa kicked at a handful of bedding straw and reached for the broom.

"Meggy, she says as 'ow she 'as heard 'im two nights now-"

Ralf stopped, his hand on the latch of the stall, but not yet opening it. His face was suddenly blank. There was a long moment of silence before he spoke. Thragun raised his head from tearing at a lump of meat. Back in the dusky stall his eyes shone, not blue, but faintly reddish.

"Missus Cobb, she put out a milk bowl last night," Asa continued, his eyes on the floor he was mechanically sweeping.

"Sooo-" Ralf swung the latch of the stall up. "She's one as can sometimes see moren' most. M' granny was like that."

"There's them what says as 'E ain't 'ere nor never was."

"Look to th' name o' this place, boy. 'Twas 'issen they say a-fore any folks came 'ere. They also say as 'ow 'E brings luck or fetches it away. Lord Jeffery, 'im as wos master 'ere in m' granny's time, 'e got on th' wrong side o' 'im an' never took no good of life after that. Died young o' a broken neck when 'is mare stepped in a rabbit 'ole. But 'is lady, she was from right believin' folks an' they say as how she came down by candlelight an' went to 'is own stone wi' a plate of sugar cakes an' a cup o' true cream. Begged pardon, she did. After that, all wot 'ad been goin' wrong became right agin."

"That were a long time ago-" said Asa.

"Some things there is, boy, wot'll never change. You get a rightful part o', th' land an' do your duty, to it an' them wot knew it afor you, will do right by you. But iffen 'E was to come, aye, it would be o' a time like'n this."

He led the horse into the stable yard and Asa fell to cleaning out the stall. Thragun swallowed the last of the food. Not that it was what should be served to Thragun Neklop, but these two had done their best. He washed his whiskers and prepared to explore the stable.

There was a good deal to be examined, sniffed, and stored in memory. Asa and Ralf were in and out on various tasks for the comfort of three horses.

It was very late afternoon before a man came in, Asa with him. He was grinning, wiping his hands on his stained and patched breeches. Thragun's lip curled, but he made no noise. This was evil again-though not as cold and deadly as that he had met when he had confronted that black Khon in the house.

The basket in which he had arrived still sat there, but Asa had dealt with it earlier. There was a break in the bamboo frame door leaving jagged ends pointing outward. Thragun was critical of the work. If he had done that, he would have made a neater job of it.

"Us came back," Asa was saying, "an' thar' it was. Th' beast 'e made his own way out."

The other young man spat. "Think you'd better 'ave a better story when th' Missus asks."

Asa shrugged. "We ain't been 'ired, me an' Ralf, to take care o' anythin' 'cept th' 'osses. An' Ralf, 'e ain't really got anythin' to watch 'cept Black Knight. She can't come a-botherin' at us nohow. Why tell 'er? Th' beast's gone, ain't it?"

"An' wot iffen'e comes back?" demanded the other.

"Then you gits 'im, don't you. Ain't I seen you throw that there sticker o' yourn quicker than Ned Parzon can shoot-take th' 'ead offen a 'en that way?"

"Maybe so." The other kicked the basket, sending it against the wall. "You keep your own mouth shut, do you 'ear?"

"I 'ear, Rog, you a-makin' noise enough to fright m' 'osses." Ralf strode in. "You ain't got no right in 'ere an' you knows it. Now git!"

The younger man scowled and tramped out of the stable. Asa and Ralf stood looking after him.

 

 

Continued with Noble Warrior pt. 2

 



 

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