Noble Warrior Teller of Fortunes

by Andre Norton


all.cats.are.gray.1953 fantastic universe


1st PublishedCatfantastic IV (1996) Edited by Andre Norton & Martin H. Greenberg, Published by DAW, PB, 0-886-77711-9, $5.99, 314pg ~ cover by Mark Hess

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


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Noble Warrior's whiskers twitched as he sulked down the narrow alley. Under his fastidious feet, though he went with all the care he could, the filth on the pavement spattered his paws. He had learned early in this journey that there were plenty of enemies on the prowl. A dog, its coat spotted with mange, had not been quick enough---Noble Warrior had reached the top of a barrel with just a hair's breadth between his tail and those fangs.

He had been driven by pangs of hunger to forage in a pail set beside a door. But he still ran his tongue around his teeth, trying to rid his mouth from the taste of rancid meat scraps.

This was no place for the guard of a princess, and the sooner he was out of it the better. Follow that instinctive direction within him, the ghost cat had advised. At the time---once he realized that he did have just such a direction---it had seemed an easy enough thing. But Thragun Neklop had never before had to cross a city of the barbarians, and barbarians certainly these close dwelling creatures seemed to be.

He leaped to the top of a rotting box to rest and try to put in order the events of the past few days. There had been the bamboo cage which was his own private palanquin, and he had meant to ride in it with Emmy, personal charge, not far away.

Then had come the place of the dragon where people were swallowed up---Emmy among them---into its fat belly and his own cage seized and then carried off. Sold he had been like any slave to that stupid meddler in magic---set up to be a familiar, as the ghost cat Simpson had informed him. Only the dolt of a would-be magician had certainly NOT been a match for two cats. Yes, he was certainly willing to give Simpson a full share in that bit of action.

Now he was well away from the house where Marcus had tried to handle what he did not understand, and, with another goal to concentrate on, starting back home.

He was hungry again, but as his head swung toward the other end of the alley, he picked up traces of a scent which made his whiskers twitch---this time in hopeful promise.

He had left Marcus' shell of a house in the very early hours of the day. Dawn had come, and he could hear the stir in the larger streets. Ahead, at the other end of the alley to which his empty stomach urged him, there was a great deal of noise. He picked up the scent of horses, yes, and some of those woolly creatures called sheep which Emmy found so pettable.

Now he shook each paw vigorously, having no wish at that time to lick pad and fur clean, and made for that end of his path.

The noise grew louder. He could easily pick up the snorting and whinnying of horses mixed with hoarse shouts of men. Reaching the end of the alley, he crouched down behind a pile of baskets to spy out the land ahead.

There was certainly a lot of coming and going. Carts laden high were being maneuvered to where they could be unloaded. There were so many smells now that he could not sort out the one which had promise. He wanted none of bold journeying across a place where one was apt to come under a horse's hard hoofs without warning. And certainly he had no intention of being sighted by any of the men and the few aproned and beshawled women there.

With the skill of his guard training, Noble Warrior selected a path to the right. Where the whole of this cart-filled place seemed busy, there was an eddy there of less confusion.

This appeared to center around a cart which was like the others. Noble Warrior blinked and blinked again. Yes, this cart was certainly NOT of the breed of the others. In fact---yes. it looked almost like a farm hut such as he had often seen in his homeland, mounted on wheels. And it was painted in bright colors. There hung a string of bells suspended across a curtained doorway in the back.

Noble Warrior relaxed a small fraction. They had the proper ideas, those of the strange cart. All knew that bells above a door were powerful charms to keep Khons in their dark places. Could it be that here, so very far from the palace of the Princess Suphron. he had indeed found people of the proper heritage Who would recognize him---hragun Neklop---for what he was---a palace guard of high rank? Yet one never forgot proper caution---not if one wanted to make the most of one's allotted nine lives.

He watched with all the patience of his kind. Set a little to one side on the pavement was a fire small and carefully tended by a woman wearing the familiar clinking coin jewelry he knew. Dancing girls dressed so. Over the fire on a tripod was a small kettle, and from that wafted the scent which had first reached Noble Warrior. He uttered a small sound deep in his throat without meaning to.

Resolutely he made himself forget about the pot to eye the rest of the company. There were a line of horses a little beyond and men wearing bright headcloths were there, plainly bargaining with the drab-coated people of the city.

The warning bells rang, and a boy about the vanished Emmy's size swung down the two caravan steps to hand something to the woman by the cookpot. He turned away as if to join the company by the horses and then instead---

Instinctively, Noble Warrior crouched small, tensed his body for a spring. He was sure, as if the boy had cried the news aloud, he had been sighted.

He could slide back into the shadow of the baskets, but somehow he did not want to, Things far back in his memory were moving, oddly disturbing his need to remain alert.

There had been a handmaid of the Princess, a slave taken in war. But she had a gift which brought her into the palace and high into favor with the Princess---she could call to her birds and animals, and they came because something within her was akin to them.

Noble Warrior uttered a small protest of sound. There was no hiding from this boy. Nor did a large part of him wish to do so.

The boy had gone down on one knee a short distance away and Noble Warrior knew he was in full sight of the child. Yet the boy made no effort to approach closer, no gesture which suggested any threat.

"Gatto---?" He spoke the word with rising inflection, and Noble Warrior recognized it as a question.

He arose from his crouch, and sat up proudly, the tip of his tail curled across his fore feet, his large blue eyes meeting the brown ones of the boy.

"Jankos?" the woman by the fire called.

Swiftly the boy made a gesture to be left alone. Now he dared move forward until he could reach out and touch Noble Warrior, while the cat allowed such a liberty.

Noble Warrior sniffed delicately at the knuckles of the turned-over fist held out to him. He did not move as the fingers slowly opened and touched the top of his head between his ears in the knowledgeable way of one used to dealing with cat people.

"Jankos!" The woman had come away from her fire tending to approach. But she suddenly stopped as Noble Warrior stood up, took two steps forward, and uttered the cry he used for a friendly greeting.

"It is a cat, Mammarn, but such a cat! Look, he has eyes like the sky!"

The woman joined Jankos, and Noble Warrior sniffed at her full skirt. No, she was not an under-skin friend like the boy, but she offered no harm either. Now she got down on her knees to inspect the cat more closely.

"You are right, Jankos. This is no cat such as one sees hereabouts." She was half frowning as she studied Noble Warrior. “He is of great worth by guess, there will be those seeking him---perhaps even a reward."

"Are you hungry, Gatto?" she added, and crooked a finger which brought Noble Warrior willingly into the open and closer to that kettle with the intriguing smells.

Jankos disappeared quickly once more into the wagon and then was back with a bowl into which the woman ladled a portion of the stew she had been tending.

Noble Warrior settled himself on guard by that, waiting for the contents to cool enough for him to investigate them more closely.

The woman sat down on the steps leading up to the curtained, bell-hung doorway, and continued to study the cat. Cats there were in plenty in this land, as well as overseas from which her family had come some years ago. However, never one such as this one. It was as if this find were a blooded horse turned out by mistake with a farmer's draft horse. She raised her voice:

'Pettros, come you here."

One of the men by the horses turned his head with an impatient look on his face but, as she made a vigorous gesture, he came.

' 'Look you What Jankos has found.”

It was the man's turn to squat on his heels and view Noble Warrior who had at last decided that the stew was ready to be tongue tasted.

"From Where did you take him," the man turned a thunderous frown on the boy.

' 'From no place. He came by himself. See, he is very hungry---he has been lost---"

The man rubbed his broad hand across his jaw. The woman broke in:

"By the looks of him he has not been on his own too long, Pettros. Perhaps there will be a reward."

The man shrugged. “He is strange, yes, but there are cats a-many and who offers a reward for such? A horse now, even a donkey, or a good hound---but a cat---I think not. If you wish him, Jankos, bring him along. We have near finished the trading and it is time to hit the road." He got up and went back to the horses and those about them.

Noble Warrior finished the bowl and even was reduced to giving it several last licks. He did not object when Jankos settled down beside him and stroked his sable brown head, scratching in just the right places hind the ears.

This was not his Princess, nor his Emmy, but the boy was suitable as a companion and Noble Warrior climbed up into the wagon as horses were hitched to it, He sat just before the curtain and watched the man finish off the contents of the kettle and stamp out the small fire. The woman had already edged past him into the interior of the wagon, but Jankos joined him on the top step, his hand still smoothing in well-trained fashion, which brought a rumble of purr from Noble Warrior.

That something deep in him which was his only direction homeward seemed soothed also, and somehow he was sure he was headed in the right direction.

There were, Noble Warrior discovered as they trundled along, three of these wagons. They did not ride as smoothly as the carriage he had shared with Emmy, but they each had their own store of the most enticing smells. There were other children beside Jankos also, but Noble Warrior held aloof from their coaxing, keeping close to his first friend.

At least they were getting away from the place of noise and bad smells, and at last Noble Warnor felt secure enough to curl up on the blanket bed to which Jankos introduced him and got to sleep, relaxing for the first time since his terrors when he had seen the smoke breathing dragon swallow Emmy and he had been stolen away.

Once he had had a refreshing sleep, he did some exploring. No one shooed him away or yelled at him. He spent some time sitting under a cage swinging with the movements of the cart in which hunched a bird, brightly feathered. Noble Warrior sniffed and sniffed again.

He had seen tame birds many times and knew that they were not to be troubled by guard cats. But there was something wrong with this one---it was sick. And the woman fussed over it, trying to get it to eat and drink, folding it closely in her arms from time to time, making soft chirruping sounds as if it could understand her.

They did not keep to the main highways in their traveling, but rather took lanes and Often forest tracks. Yet all the time Noble Warrior felt the pull of his instinct. Home WAS in this direction.

On the fourth morning the bird had fallen from its perch and lay a crumpled mass of feathers on the floor of the cage. Noble Warrior watched the woman dig a resting place for its small body in the softer earth of a ditch side. There were tear marks on her brown cheeks.

"No Thother,” she said when she returned to the wagon. "He served us well, always seemed to know just which card to pick. Remember the gentleman who gave a gold piece---hunted us up after the race and said Thother had picked the winner for him. We shall not see such a clever feathered one again.”

That night, when they halted, she brought out a small folding table and set it up as straight as she could on the ground, a lamp stationed at its side. Then she produced a long bag which glinted in the subdued light as if made from one of Princess Suphron's fine robes.

Out of that she shook a number of flat sticks of a dull yellowish color. Noble Warrior's ears flattened a little. This woman was going to play some of the tricks he had seen used to amuse the women of the court. Much of the past faded from his mind---he was back in a garden beside a pool where a woman, much older and more raggedly dressed than this one, went through the same gestures.

He jumped to the second caravan step, whiskers twitching. Was this woman also one of power whom even the treacherous Khons would answer?

Each stick was marked on one side---the other was plain of any pattern. She gathered them all up again, holding the plain sides uppermost, and tossed them once more.

For a long time she just sat there. Noble Warrior grew impatient. This was not the way matters should go at all. He gave a snort, leaned closer. With a dark paw flipped one of the pieces over.

There was a sharp exclamation from the woman. She snatched up the stick he had moved and examined the pattern on it---then she looked beyond it at Noble Warrior himself as if she had never seen him before.

"Mammam---" Jankos had pushed past the door curtain.

"Quiet!" Her voice carried the snap of an order. “I must---I must think!" She set her elbows on the table and steadied her head on the support of her hands. With a breath which was almost a whistle she again gathered up the sticks, the eyes focusing on Noble Warrior holding a new wariness.

For the second time she tossed them loosely and then leaned back, her attention centered on the cat.

She---she wanted--- He put out a paw which hovered over three sticks and then flipped up and over the middle one, settling back to watch her reaction.

He knew the danger of the Great Dark---one learned that as a kitten hardly before one's eyes were open---but this was no harmful curse play.

The woman did not pick up the stick he had chosen, just leaned forward to see it the better as it lay on the table. Jankos crowded closer and now Pettros loomed on the other side.

“This---this one---" The woman's voice began as a half whisper and then arose louder. "This one---" She flung out her hands as if she could not find the words for more of an explanation. Now the man leaned the closer.

"A far journey---" he said slowly.

"Gatto can SEE---just like Thother!" Jankos grabbed up a handful of the sticks and tossed them so that a number fell just in front of Noble Warrior's waiting paws. He bent his head and sniffed---the old knowledge. Yes, it still was with him. He flipped another of the sticks.

"Trouble---" the woman shook her head. But Noble Warrior was not yet through; he had already curved a claw around a second stick so that once in the air, it fell across the first, Then he sat back satisfied.

"Gain!” it was Pettros who cried out that word. “Trouble and then gain! Maritza, this is no cat---he is a treasure for us. Do you not see?"

She drew a deep breath. "I see," she answered slowly. With the upraised fingers of one hand she made a sign in the air.

Thus Noble Warrior became indeed one who chose futures. Where Thother had before picked sticks from the bundles people held out, he waited until they were tossed and then turned one, sometimes two, or even three. It was dabbling in things beyond the curtain of this world, that was true. But he was of the breed who knew both worlds. Had he not dealt with Hob on his arrival in this land, soothing the spirit of the house no man could see? Had he not identified the evil Khon sent to destroy Emmy and her father, and finished that nasty spirit off? Had he not talked with ghosts and managed to defeat a would-be follower of the black arts?

Thus they traveled from one village to another. Always, Noble Warrior was assured by instinct in the right way for him. Maritza made him a velvet collar marked with glittering spangles which he wore when he was on duty at the table. Sometimes he thought that she was a little afraid of him for some reason. But the villagers who came to have their fortunes told were certainly in awe and there were a number of coins to ring in the bag Jankos carried when he escorted Noble Warrior back to the caravan.

It was when they came to the fair that there was a shadow sensed by the cat. Something tickled his innermost thoughts as might a wisp of a dream, It was of the dark---not intensely, threateningly so, as had been the Khon, but it was here and he had no wish to seek it out.

Others than the villagers had come to see what might be offered by the dealers. There was a girl with a thin, sharp-nosed face, a mouth which was a line of discontent and peevishness, dressed like Emmy When she went to some place of importance.

When she came up to the table, the villagers gave way and none of them showed any smiles.

She flounced herself down on the stool opposite Maritza and looked at Noble Warrior with a sly smirk.

"A fortune-telling cat! La, what will it be next, I wonder. A horse to sing opera, a pig to dance? All right, Gypsy, let this animal of yours tell my fortune!"

Noble Warrior's blue eyes stared into hers which seemed unable to meet his squarely. The faint whiff of the dark which had disturbed him since early morning was now like a full puff of rising incense in his face.

She was not a Khon, no. Nor was she of some very ancient evil of this land. But in her there was darkness and danger---not for herself but for others.

Catching up a handful of the sticks, she threw them straight at the cat. One caught in his collar and swung there. But the rest hit the tabletop. He was aware that Maritza had drawn back a little, that Jankos was on the move to come between this girl and Noble Warrior.

For a long instant Noble Warrior simply stared at the girl. She gave a spiteful giggle.

"No fortune for me then, cat. As I thought, it is all a hum---gypsy trickery."

Noble Warrior's right paw swept out. He did not linger to make any choice, he simply snapped one of the sticks into the air and it flew much as the one she had shot at him through the air to land flatly before her.

'The pattern on that stick was red and black and curled in a tight series of circles. He heard Maritza gasp.

'"Well. what is the meaning?" The girl tapped the stick with one fingernail.

"Lady---" Noble Warrior saw Maritza stiffen. Pettros had come up behind her. Now his hand had reached out to close protectingly on her shoulder. "Lady, you must watch yourself---your thoughts---well---there is danger---“

The girl's giggle became a crow of unpleasant laughter, "What, no dark haired knight to court me? Your cat is not very polite, Gypsy, You should teach him better manners.”

She stood up abruptly. Jankos made no attempt to offer her the money bag, nor did she show any sign of dropping in a coin.

"Gypsies." she said as she turned away, “There are those hereabout who have little liking for your kind, I would advise you to be on the road before sundown---well away from here."

Her wide skirts swept around in a swirl and she went off. Maritza's hand come up to cover her husband's where it rested on her shoulder.

"The evil," She said in a voice which was close to a whisper, “is not against her---it is in that one, Pettros---she is the danger."

"She is the stepdaughter of the squire," he answered. “A word from her and---" he shrugged. "Best that we take her advice and get on the road---now.”

As they trundled off, Noble Warrior, in his favorite place on the driver's seat of the wagon, was no longer concerned. The dark-thoughted one was gone, but there was something else--- His head was held high and he tried with all his might to locate that trace. Yes! It was growing much stronger. Home---he was nearly home!

But the track they followed took a winding turn away from the right direction. Noble Warrior jumped from his vantage point and flashed into the woods making a thick wall on that side of the road.

He sped on, leaping here a downed tree, there weaving a way around some mossy stones. There was the sound of water ahead. But there was another sound also---the crying of a child.

Noble Warrior's speed slackened. He was being pulled in two directions, but the crying won. Emmy? Could it be Emmy? No, the voice was too young for her.

He came out on the bank of the small stream. There was a child there right enough, much younger than Emmy. His face, swollen from crying, had also been harshly scratched by briars in one place and he rocked back and forth in his pain and fear, his clothing muddied and torn.

Noble Warrior advanced with his usual caution when facing the unknown. The child let out a wail and then suddenly caught sight of the cat, His mouth fell a little open.

"K---k-kitty?" he stammered.

Plainly, Noble Warrior decided, this kitten had been lost. Where was his mother that she allowed him to Stray so?

"Lissy---Lissy branged you---k---k---kitty? She told Toddie wait, there would be a 'prise. You the 'prise, k-k-kitty?"

He held out a badly scratched and mud grimed hand. "Where Lissy---Toddie go home!" His face was puckering again for further crying.

Noble Warrior advanced until the small hand fell on his head. It was sticky on his fur, but he resigned himself to that. For a moment he stood and let the child pat him. then backed away.

As he had hoped, the little boy scrambled up and followed, as the cat slowly Withdrew. But which way would they go? Back to the village---or on to that still far place to which his need called him?

Best the village, he decided. Their journey was a slow one and Noble Warrior had to submit to a great deal of patting, and even once to the shame of a hand closing on his glossy tail. But they did come out at last on the track where he had left the caravan. There was no sign of that. Perhaps the gypsy instinct to get away from danger had taken them well ahead. But the village lay in the other direction.

Toddie sat down much more often now and had to be coaxed to follow. But before they reached the first cottages there was the thud of horse hooves on the road. The man in the lead was mounted on a tall black horse which overran the spot where Toddie had taken his last rest, but he reined back, jumped from the saddle and caught up the child almost firmly.

Toddie wrapped arms around the man’s neck.

“Toddie!” The man hugged him so tightly that the child squirmed.

“Dadda!” yelled the little boy.

“Just like Miss Elizabeth said. Squire, them there gypsies had him---dropped him off when they got to know as they were being followed!”

“Lissy?” Toddie pushed a little away from his father to look up into the man’s face. “Lissy said Toddie---come to woods--- show him big ‘prise. Then Lissy ranned away---Toddie no find her---only K-k-kitty! K-k-kitty good---bring Toddie to Dada. Lissy, she losted Toddie!”

He had flung out an arm to indicate Noble Warrior who was preparing to edge back in the bushes.

“Why---that there’s the gypsie cat---“ said one of the men.

But another approached Noble Warrior more closely, going down on one knee to survey him with care.

“Squire---this here is that strange cat Captain Ashley brought ‘ome from foreign parts for ‘is little girl. Stolen it was when they went to London to take th’ train to th’ seashore. The Captain, e’s near been crazy trying to find it---e’s offered a reward an’ all.”

Now the speaker turned his attention to the cat. “Noble Warrior, you knows me---Tom Jenkins as is second groom. Time you get back home---Miss Emmy now, she’s near cried herself sick and th’ whole place in not the same without you walkin’ out in th’ mornin’ to take th’ air.”

Noble Warrior all at once felt tired, tired but at peace. He might not have won home all by himself, but he was certainly not far away. Willingly, he allowed Tom to pick him up carefully. For a fleeting moment he thought of Jankos and the caravan---but that was not meant to be the life of a guardian cat---no, not at all.



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