Noble Warrior Meets with a Ghost

by Andre Norton

 

all.cats.are.gray.1953 fantastic universe

 

1st PublishedCatfantastic III (1994) Edited by Andre Norton & Martin H. Greenberg, Published by DAW, PB, 0-886-77591-4, $4.99, 319pg ~ 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/317-noble-warrior-meets-with-a-ghost




 

Such a noise! Even ten temples' worth of rattle swinging, horn blowing priests at the heights of celebration could not drown out—this! And the smells! Thragun Neklop lifted a fastidious lip enough to show a very sharp fang. This was like the Ninth Hell itself and no proper place for the well conducted, feline or even human. He felt cross-eyed from watching through the narrow slit in his bamboo riding case, yet he dared not let down his guard.

The roar of a dragon sweeping on its helpless prey made him almost cower, but he was Noble Warrior, Princess' own guard. Dragon or no dragon, he faced danger directly and with both blue eyes wide open. The dragon crawled along one side of this infernal place and its side scales opened so that those it had previously devoured were issuing forth apparently unharmed. Would the wonders of this barbarian territory never cease?

Now another crowd was sweeping into those dragon scale doors. And Emmy, his own Princess Emmy, was hurrying along toward this unknown fate. Noble Warrior gave tongue in no uncertain yowl. He saw Emmy's head turn in his direction, but then her father swung her up and into the dragon and—

Noble Warrior's traveling cage swung aloft. He had been picked up. And the scent of this newcomer was unpleasantly familiar though he could not see more than a looming shadow. Emmy—he must be transported to join Emmy. Only that did not happen. The carrying cage rocked as its bearer picked up speed. Not toward the dragon but away from it. They burst out of the noise and confusion of the station into the open. But not the open Noble Warrior knew. There was the smell of horses, that was familiar, but there were other smells, nearly as bad as some in the poor villages at home. And the noise continued.

Noble Warrior threw himself against the front of the cage. He tried to slip one brown paw into the crack about the door, to free himself. But he did not have a chance. The cage was whirled up into the air and came down with a slam which brought another yowl out of him. The cage rocked with the floor under it and Noble Warrior was sure he had been loaded into one of those wagons such as Emmy often traveled in, sometimes taking Noble Warrior, who knew his place and sat statue still by her side while she pointed out various points of interest.

There was still that familiar scent. He could only think of the stable yard at home as the carrier rocked from a kick. Noble Warrior crouched belly to the floor to consider his present plight. He did not believe in the least that Emmy had abandoned him to this fate—whatever it might be. But Emmy was fast in the dragon and he was left to do battle on his own.

Alerting all his senses he tested as well as he could what might lie beyond the walls of the carrier. He could smell horse very strong. And there was also the smell of unwashed human—a human who drank the fire spirit—that groom the Captain had ordered off his land! There were other smells also. And all the while, the noise ebbed, roared, and ebbed.

The wagon came to a halt and there was a beam of light. Once more, Noble Warrior's carrier was swung out into the open and he caught a fleeting glimpse of a soot-stained brick wall and the iron pickets of a fence. Then he was again in drab shadow as the carrier thumped to the floor.

" 'Ere y'be, guvener. Right one an' all."

"So."

Noble Warrior's head swung around. He could not see through the weaving of the bamboo, but the fur along his back ridged and his ears flattened to his skull. But he made no sound—no guardian warned before attack, that was not the way.

Only there was evil here—just as he had sensed it at other times and in other places. Khon? Demon dweller in the shadows? Or more?

He had no time to speculate. Once more his carrier was swept up and off, to be placed on a flat surface again. Now it was surrounded by smells which made him sneeze and shake his head. There came a fumbling with the catch and the doorway to his temporary prison swung open. Noble Warrior made no effort to leave his conveyance. Make sure, instinct warned. Who knew who or what awaited him.

"Here, puss—puss—"

A large hand appeared in his range of sight. The skin was discolored in places almost as if it had been burnt, and on the forefinger was a large ring, the setting of which was the red of a half awakened coal.

Noble Warrior hissed a warning as that ill-omened hand approached. He readied his own paw for a good raking slash.

The hand remained where it was for a long moment and then a second joined it. In the hand was a round ball. There was a sudden squeeze and from the ball issued a puff which caught Noble Warrior straight in the face. He coughed, uttered the beginning of a howl, and subsided to the cushion beneath him.

The hand with the ring reached in to catch him by the scruff of the neck and dragged him out to dangle helplessly in the air while the owner of the hand surveyed his captive. Helpless Noble Warrior was—he could not even summon a growl.

"Soooooo—" The large head opposite him nodded. "Indeed—even as Jasper said—"

The hand loosened its grip and Noble Warrior fell, landing on a table top not far from his carrier. He tried to command his body, to leap for that refuge. But he was as helpless as if he were entangled in a bird hunter's net.

"We shall be friends—"

Noble Warrior managed the weak beginning of a snarl. What he saw was dark shadowed. It was even as the Great Old Ones of his own kind said, evil doers were always dark shadowed. This one resembled nothing so much as one of the carven Khons set up in warning.

His shoulders were hunched and his head, which looked too large for his body, might not sprout the fangs of a Khon to be sure, but his teeth were yellow and he showed a nasty snaggle of them as he grinned. Pallid, grayish skin was half concealed about a retreating chin by a straggle of fuzzy beard. But the spreading dome of his head was bare save for more fuzz over large ears which showed distinct points. He wore a loose coat or jacket which might have once been white but was now begrimed and stained into a twilight gray. His eyes had retreated into dark caverns under an untidy thatching of brow, but they held a bright glint which Noble Warrior caught. Maybe not a Khon—but certainly one who had willingly chosen the Dark Path.

"We shall be friends—you shall see—" The great head nodded. "Until we are, there shall be precautions taken."

Again the hand swooped and the helpless cat dangled in the air as the man shuffled across the dark room and pushed his captive into a cage, snapping the door behind him with a click, and turning his back as if he had fairly settled the matter.

Noble Warrior lay where he had fallen. There was a stench in this cage, and with it came the dregs of far off fear and pain. He snarled and tried to move. Whatever spell the Khon master had put upon him seemed to be lessening. Now he pulled himself up and sat as one of the Old Blood should.

The light of the room was dim. There were several windows, but they were barred and set very high on the wall, so covered with dust and the webs of long dead spiders that they might have been securely curtained. Over the table where his carrier still stood, there hung a lamp and there were candles posted here and there—a whole line of them on an old desk at one side where there was a pile of age-eaten books. His captor had settled down in a sway-backed chair next to that desk and had one of the books open now, impatiently switching candlesticks around for a better reading light.

There were a number of cabinets lined up under the windows at one wall, the doors of several hung open to show rows of bottles and jars of strange things Noble Warrior could not guess the use for. At the darker end of the room was a single door. That was flanked by two tables which bore—cages! Cages such as the one in which he found himself.

There were other captives—his cat sight was not defeated by the gloom. In one were rats—but such rats—their fur was white or else unwholesomely mottled in color and they scuttled about aimlessly. In the next—

Noble Warrior stiffened. There was no mistaking the scent, overpowered as it might be by the smells of this place, but there was a cat. Not one of his own regal breed, of course, but still another cat. Though its fur was matted and it seemed so lost in despair that it made no effort to cleanse itself, he could see now that it was a female, and had fur unusually long and black.

She was half curled against the bars of her prison, her eyes closed, her position crying out hopelessness and fear.

There came a buzzing sound and the man by the desk shook his head impatiently. "Time—never any time. Devil take Henry—" Leaving his book open, he got rustily to his feet and snuffled to the far door.

As he approached the cages flanking the door, the other cat's head came up a little. Noble Warrior saw its mouth open but without sound. The man brushed by it, paying no attention, while the rats scrambled in a wild dance around their prison.

When the door closed behind their jailor, Noble Warrior raised his voice:

"I am Thragun Neklop of the Royal Guard. Who are you and where is this place? What does this evil one want of us?"

The black cat raised its head and opened golden eyes.

"This is a place of pain, and hunger, and we are forgotten. I was—" the black cat shook its head slowly, "I cannot remember. What I am—what you will be—is one to suffer, suffer as he wills it. And will it he will!"

"I do not understand."

"Oh, you will, my fine would-be fighter, you will—as have the others before you. And probably not to any productive purpose."

Shadow detached itself from shadow, leapt to the same table as supported Noble Warrior's cage, to become substance. Another cat—the largest he had ever seen—this one also black, its ears ragged from ancient battles, its eyes bearing strange red sparks within their greenness.

The newcomer took a couple of strutting steps and then settled down, sitting upright, its tail end wrapped composedly over its forepaws. It looked Noble Warrior over, and the open contempt in that survey brought a snarl to the prisoner's lips, a flattening of ears in warning.

"You are a strange one," the black cat observed. "Yes, I can see why old Marcus was ready to pay a full guinea for you. Supposed to come from foreign parts if I heard their talk right. Maybe this time he will be able to do it—I've heard tell that in foreign parts they have other learning."

"Do what?" demanded Noble Warrior.

"Make a familiar out of you. Old Marcus, he's cracked in the noggin as Henry says. This place," with a slight sweep of his head, the cat indicated what lay about them, "is an old hidy-hole where those before Marcus thought to speak with the Devil and gather black power. Some of them—" the black cat paused, "some of them in the past had the Old Learning—but always on the dark side. There was Sir Justin dayman—yes, and that Parson turned wizard—Master Loomis. They did things such as would make old Marcus' eyes pop right out of his skull. He tries, but he's far from learning even the first of the lessons. That's why he's trying other ways now, why he wants a familiar. He heard tell of the Princess first—" The cat inclined his head toward the captive on the other side of the room.

"She's a foreigner, too—comes 'cross seas from the Far East. But she's no magic maker and he can't turn her into one. So when he heard tell of another cat as seemed to bring luck to people—well, he made up his mind to gather you in and see if he would fare any better with his plans."

"What about you?" Noble Warrior had followed this garbled account as best he could, translating it into what he knew of old. One who would work with Khons needed an animal as some kind of a helper. Yes, he had heard of the priests of Kali and the serpents they were said to send to gather the souls of those who opposed them.

"Now wouldn't he just like that." The black cat opened his mouth in an unmistakable yawn. "Oh, I could be what he wants right enough. But I've served my time as the saying goes. Sir Justin, he was a right pleasant one to work with. Parson Loomis now, I'll not say the same for that one. No, old Marcus can't get his bonds on me—seeing as how I'm living in another time these days."

Noble Warrior's eyes narrowed. There had been so many strange, dark, and unpleasant emanations in this place that only now he realized that other-space chill.

"You are dead," he said harshly as the fur along his spine quivered.

The black cat's mouth stretched now in a grin. "Just figured it out, have you, new boy? Only you may call it dead—I find my present state most satisfactory. You'd better be worrying about your own. The Princess there," he nodded again to the other prisoner, "she hasn't long to go now. He's decided she's not worth the trouble of feeding her."

Noble Warrior looked at that other captive. She had raised her head a fraction and was eyeing the, stranger cat almost pleadingly.

"This herder of Khons is not going to get me to serve him!" Noble Warrior emphasized that with a deep throated growl.

"Keep on believing it, youngster. You'll change your mind quick enough. Not that Marcus can do it, you understand—make you his slave. But it'll be a rare fight and Simpson here will have plenty to watch while it's in the doing."

Noble Warrior edged closer to the door of the cage. He had neat, slender paws and he knew how to use them. The opening of cupboards and doors was no mystery—though the latch on the carrier had been out of his reach. Now he could wriggle past one bar and lay a paw to the fastening here, but in spite of his prying it would not give.

The ghost cat watched him. "Good try," he commented. "Only it is not going to work. You will have to think of some other way—and there isn't any."

Noble Warrior settled back once more. He was thinking again over all that had happened since he had arrived in this dire place.

"That thing—the one the Khon Master used—the one which puffed at me—" He was thinking aloud more than addressing Simpson.

"Got it on the first try, haven't you? Yes, a puff of that and you're as limp as a dead rat. He'll use it, too."

In all his life Thragun Neklop had never asked for help, but he realized that perhaps such a surrender of Warrior pride might serve him best now.

"If the Khon Master did not have that—"

For a long moment Simpson stared back. His eyes changed; deep in their centers that spark of red grew and began to glow.

"You want help, is that it?"

Noble Warrior met those flaming eyes squarely. This visitor from the shades had not helped that other cat prisoner. Would he be moved any quicker to give aid to him?

"She is no fighter." Somehow Noble Warrior was not surprised that this other read his thought. "She could not have defended herself as such a fine young fellow as you might do. So, Marcus has done little save twitter over books he cannot understand and brew stinks enough to take one's breath away."

"Not like those others," Noble Warrior inserted slyly, "the ones who knew your value."

Simpson nodded. "True, very true. I think—" He arose and stretched luxuriously, "that it is time old Marcus be shown his proper place in one world or another."

He was gone although Thragun Neklop, blinking twice, did not see him leap away. He extended his claws and rasped them across the splintered flooring of the cage.

Properly sharp, yes. If he could only get a chance to use them. Then he looked once more to the Princess. She was huddled in upon herself like a round black mat. If he got out—if he could fight free—what of her?

Then the door beside her cage scraped open and Marcus shuffled back in, a lamp in one hand and a small basket in the other. He set both on the table and, muttering to himself in a voice too low for Noble Warrior to hear, set about assembling a number of other things to join the light and basket he had brought with him.

Once more Noble Warrior blinked. Simpson was in plain sight, sitting on the edge of that table now watching Marcus' actions, disdain to be read in every tilt of whisker. It was plain to Noble Warrior that the old man was completely unaware of the big feline almost within touching distance of the bowls and boxes and small bottles Marcus brought from other shelves and set ready to hand.

At length, having combined a pinch of that, a drop of this from one container or another, the man nodded almost briskly and swept all the clutter away from the major portion of the table top. He then proceeded to draw on the cleared space with thick crayon markings and curlicues in red. In the end he surveyed critically a star between the points of which were scrawled convoluted shapings which made Noble Warrior spit in rage. This was truly demon dealing.

Having surveyed his handiwork with apparent approval, Marcus reached for something Noble Warrior had seen before—that noxious puffer. But Simpson's paw touched that strange weapon first, sending it rolling from the table.

With an exclamation the old man went down on his knees to retrieve what Simpson had rolled under the table. Noble Warrior could not really understand why-this would-be demon commander was not aware of the ghost cat.

Beyond Marcus' groping fingers Simpson made a pounce and brought both forefeet down on the rounded end of the weapon. Noble Warrior could not see any puff of dust at this distance, but Simpson withdrew instantly as Marcus' hand closed upon the bulb. With a grunt of satisfaction he got creakingly to his feet, and weapon in hand, came toward Noble Warrior's prison. Steel muscles moved under the shields of fine fur. The training of kittenhood days was very much a part of him now. One human hand fumbled at the latching of the cage and the other advanced with the puffer.

Noble Warrior saw the fingers squeeze on it, but this time there was no dust to clog his nostrils and turn him into a limp fur string. As the cage door swung wide enough, with a battle cry, he leapt straight at that great round head, claws raking deep and true.

Marcus screeched in turn and stumbled back, striving to tear the cat's body from him. There was a rake across his eyes and then Noble Warrior dropped to the floor. The man blundered blindly along the table, sweeping off the contents to shatter on the floor.

Noble Warrior was across the room in two bounds and had gained the table where the other cage was standing. The latch, which had been placed outside the reach of the captive, was easy enough to get at now. He caught it in his teeth, gave a twist, and the door opened.

"Out!" he yowled at the Princess.

She squeezed by him, moving so slowly he wanted to hurry her along with a nip on the quarters.

"Neatly done," Simpson stood on the floor below. "Come along now. You've given old dog face something to think about—marked him good, you did. But we'd better be out of here before he gets some of those scattered wits back into his head."

With Simpson in the lead, the Princess pattering along behind, and Noble Warrior playing rear guard, they threaded through a hall upstairs and were shown a broken window in a nasty smelling, cupboardlike hole.

For the first time Noble Warrior had to think of what would come next. There was no Emmy to hand—she had been swallowed by the dragon—and her father, the Captain, was also already far away. He was alone—no, the Princess was with him, and in a strange country he did not understand at all.

"Simpson—" he began uncertainly.

"You're on your own now, fighter. Now the Princess—" In this strange light of day they stood in a mean little strip of sour, bare earth. "There's a place for her. There's a little girl down the street and across the square who will welcome her. But that's no place for you. I don't know what they teach kittens in those foreign parts of yours, beside how to be good fighters. But you should have that which will take you home even if you have to make it on your four feet. Look inside yourself, youngster, and find it."

Thragun Neklop looked. And he found. He knew the way—he need only go in that direction and keep on until he got there. Why, that was no problem at all.

"Simpson?"

The cat ghost was fast fading only to a shadow of a shadow.

"Get going, youngster. You've given me a good day. Old Marcus won't be trying to make himself a wizard—at least not for some time—not insulting the shades of Sir Justin and Parson Loomis with his messes. Seems like he met with his match and that one was one of us—very fitting. Good journey to you, my young friend, may the mice be many and the road a straight one. Now I'm to see this young lady to her proper place in life. As a good familiar ought."

The Princess hesitated and then wobbled to Noble Warrior and touched noses, before wavering along behind a fast disappearing shred of darkness. Thragun Neklop drew a deep breath and started to seek his own way.

 



 

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