Bard's Crown

by Andre Norton

 

all.cats.are.gray.1953 fantastic universe

 

1st Published ~ In Elf Fantastic (1997) Edited by Martin H. Greenberg, Published by DAW, PB, 0-886-77736-4, No.1054, $5.99, 318pg ~ cover by John Howe ~ All-original tales of dangerous and magical encounters between elves and mortals...19 stories.

 

Available Now ~ In Tales from High Hallack vol. 3 (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/419-bard-s-crown




 

 

Catlin shivered and pleated her shawl nervously between her fingers. She noted that the two serving maids had crept into the corner of the small bower as closely as they could, away from the door into the great hall.

Another burst of raucous laughter reached her. There was no way she could deal with this. Kathal, like any son of Clan Dongannan, had gone to the High King for a year's service in the Guard near a year ago. Now he was back because was the o 'Dongannan, their uncle having died of a rheum. But the boy who had gone away, as reckless and thoughtless concerning others as he had been, was lost. That mead-swigging brute at rough play with his cronies out there---brother or not, she could say nothing to which he would listen.

In the meantime the whole of the valley was in disorder. There was no master to guide, advise, praise, or deal justice. And the people had learned to keep as far from the Great Hall as they could.

She raised a hand and pushed back a wandering curl of hair, anchoring it again under her hair coif. So far---so far she had largely escaped Kathal's notice, but she could not creep around forever looking over her shoulder. Being of the High Blood she could not be caught by one of those turbulent roisters out there and unceremoniously used (as two of the maids had already suffered) but there was nothing to prevent Kathal arbitrarily handfasting her to one of his drinking mates.

Even Kathal would have to learn soon that the supplies from last harvest were not inexhaustible and any yield from the new planted field was months away. Yet he had done nothing but order stored seed grains to be drawn upon. And she could feel the stir of black hate rising whenever she dared venture out to do the little she could to aid.

That high-pitched voice carried above all the clamor from the other room, somehow stifled much of it.

"Treasure, look you. 'Tis well known that Lugh's Mound holds it. The old stories are that every king who went into the Shadows took much of his treasure with him---though how much that could comfort his bones who can say."

There was utter silence now, and Catlin clasped her hands so tightly together that the bones seemed to lock on each other. Treasure---Lugh's Mound---surely Kathal would not be so utterly lost as to try for what might lie there!

"Wager! Wager!" one of the other voices rang out. "Let us see true treasure by the next moontide, and we'll shield raise you!"

Catlin's hands now sped to cover her ears. Somehow she knew Kathal's mood. He'd take up this challenge as eagerly as he would raise a sword on the practice field. There was no longer any priest to aid. Brother Victus had been ignominiously bundled out two months ago and told he was lucky he still kept his head on his shoulders.

She knew well the legend of Lugh's Mound which was raised on the tallest peak of the surrounding hills. No one went near it, but there had been those who had seen at a distance a company of riders on mounts like gray mist who circled it as guardians. Brother Victus had said they were Those of the Hills, outside human laws and duties. But the country people would leave at times a fine fleece or a bowl of honey out on the flat stone by the faint path which perhaps those mist horses had worn through the years, and were sure that luck for their households followed such gifts.

Her uncle had said it had naught to do with the People but was rather the resting place of one of those raiding lords from overseas who had been ceremoniously buried with a goodly portion of his loot when a last foray went against him. Catlin sucked in a breath. When they were children, she and Kathal, her brother had often spoken of that treasure, and now he shared the tale with those in there.

For him to venture to Lugh's Mound might cost him the rest of the ragged loyalty of their people. She could bear no more of their drunken swaggering. They were now taunting Kathal to his deed, and she knew well that her brother would take up such a challenge.

Catlin arose from the stool where she had been sitting and stepped past the two cowering maids. Closing the door to the great hall firmly, she shot the bar across it though she knew that if Kathal discovered such an act, he would have that door hacked from its hinges as being shut against his authority.

Then, turning, she went to the window and drew aside the heavy draft-defeating curtain to look out. There were no lights to be seen in the village---why would there be? Honest men and women had been long abed. But she through the gloom of the night---to Lugh's Mound. The moon was only a new crescent now and gave little light. All she could see was a darker shadow against the star-studded sky. She folded her hands and repeated the ward-off words Brother Victus had used.

Then she turned and signaled to the maids who saw her to her bed before they sought their own pallets.

There are dreams and dreams. Some vanish when one opens eyes in the morning, parts of others either linger on in sharp memory or shadowy uneasiness. Catlin brought out from slumber with the morning light what might be a vision---of land she knew well, having ridden and walked over it since childhood. But this carried no trim of growth---it was black and seared as if fire had claimed it. The houses were tumbled and deserted, there were no beast in the fields. No one showing in farmyards---even the smoke of family hearths did not wreath from any chimney. A dead land!

She forced herself to wash and dress---to unbar that door and look into the foul disorder of the hall. Two men lay snoring on the floor, one was sprawled across the table---a puddle of spilled mead ruffled from his breath where his head rested.

But there was no sign of Kathal, nor the two of his companions he held the closest. There was the sound of a step and she turned swiftly. The newcomer was old Timous, once her uncle's steward, now a broken man with a new bruise on his forehead. His eyes as they met Catlin's were as empty as those of a dead man. Then there came a flicker of recognition, and he said between broken teeth, "This be black days, Lady. Himself has gone to Lugh's Mound with those to stand aside and watch that he does what he wagered to do."

"What will be the ending of this, Timous?"

"Death---and for more than those who dared this night." His back was straightening now, and he was more the man who had been right hand for her uncle. "Lady," he protested now, "this place it not fit for your eyes. Let us cleanse it before you come within---"

"Not so, Timous. This be the Hall of my Blood and Kin. Who better should set it in order?" She knew well that the old man had few to serve with him. Some shambling farm hands and kitchen boys.

With the aid of such unhandy helpers. plus her maids, they did bring order. The comatose drinkers were blanketed and stowed away, Catlin hoping, with a viciousness she had never felt before, that they would suffer the worst pangs of a morning after this drink-filled night.

It was the second of her uncle's old trusted retainers who came in before they were done and sought her out.

"Lady---the people of the valley---they have come in fear and need."

"Hew, why---" But she did not try to guess what other happening from the sottish debauch of the night before might have occurred. The knowledge that Kathal had gone treasure hunting in Lugh's Mound was enough to raise most of the villagers.

So the girl followed Hew out into a gray drizzle of a day, a day which somehow threatened that a full sun would never shine here again. The villagers were gathered waiting, from children in arms, to the elders, some of whom hobbled painfully on two sticks---with the hale and hearty in between.

Each face was pale, and frightened eyes darted from her at her coming to the gate of the courtyard and back as if they had been pursued to this haven and looked now upon her to defend them from some danger they could not meet themselves.

“Lady---" It was again Hew who was the spokesman beckoning her forward so that the throng there parted and let her through, past the outer gate into the open.

Here also hung mist, but her eyes were drawn to the ground. Down the crooked lane which was the center of the hall village, out and around, circles, arcs, lines as straight as a spear shaft, marked the ground. They were silvery and yet she was sure that they had no substance and were only prints. And they were the tracks of some mounted troop which had encircled again and again each cottage, crossed and recrossed every field within her range of sight.

"'The Riders---of the People." Hew pointed to the tracks.

Already the sharpness of that sign was fading. She did not want to in what she had seen and yet she could not put it from her.

"Ill---ill" somewhere in the crowd behind her a woman raised that wail. "Ill be this day and that which follows." Catlin could feel the cold rise of fear. They might well panic and what answer did she have? She was not the Dongannan---where was Kathal?

Her silent question was answered then by other riders, substantial enough that the blowing of their horses and their own mumbling voices could be readily heard. Kathal at their head, his face flushed, his jerkin and shirt gone, and the stains of earth on his bare arms and what was left of his clothing.

"A wager!" his voice rang out. "A wager you said, Clough and Dongal. Well, have I not won it and fairly?'

He held up something, which in spite of the dullness of the morning, flashed as if for a moment he held a brand aloft. That it must be some gem Catlin was sure. His eyes held steady on it and on nothing else around.

"And there be more!" he crowed. "Richer than the hall of the Great King will be Dongannan---and all just for some delving in the diff."

Then, for the first time, he appeared to note Catlin and he grinned at her. For a moment she thought she saw some evil mask instead of her brother's face. He leaned from his saddle, urging his mount closer, and dangled what he held over her head.

It seemed to be a spray of flowers, and yet not possessing the quick passing beauty of true flowers but fashioned from the cold hardness of colored stones. Treasure indeed---the richest ornament she had ever seen.

Kathal raised it up to his face now and nuzzled at it as if it were the first mouthful of some feast. "Ah, the taste of treasure!" Again he crowed.

Catlin and the others behind her opened a way for him and his two companions. They bore no signs of toil she saw, but neither were they in such glee as her showed. Instead now and then they glanced over their shoulders as if they felt other and perhaps eyes upon them.

Then Catlin saw that they did have a follower. A donkey, its head hanging, plodded well to their rear, and on the spirit-broken creature hunched a misshapen lump which, as he advanced, she could make out as a man. But such a man, as gnarled and time twisted as some ancient tree. Though his back was hunched, he bent over a hand harp of some dull black wood and the strings of it appeared to be the same color as the mist about.

As Kathal's mount trotted into the courtyard, that strange rider halted. Three times his crooked fingers plucked those harp strings. However, the notes which arose from them were not of any music as mankind wanted to hear, rather gusty sighs, the last dwindling into a wail.

The harper grinned, showing yellowish teeth and eyes near buried in the wrinkles which seamed his face. Then he urged his donkey around and the animal plodded away, out of the village. Yet that which the harper left behind him moved the villagers to shrink, until some of the women and children broke and ran for their homes.

So did all peace and sanity leave Dongannan---its fields and homes, its great hall, and its peoples. The two who had ridden forth with Kathal for that ominous wager sickened and within a fortnight were dead. Their three drunken fellows rode at a wild gallop out of the holding after they witnessed those deaths.

But nothing seemed meaningful to Kathal. He sat in his high chair at the table for hours, pushing aside any food or drink offered him, playing with his treasure and talking mainly to himself, for it finally came that only Catlin would approach him, of the even greater riches to be gained when he was in a mind to do so.

The fields which had been hoof-printed were now bare of even a blade of dying grass, as were the gardens of the cottages. On the hills lay the bodies of sheep along with their tenders. The few cattle seemed to go wild, two of them horning their owners before they disappeared into the wild lands beyond.

Catlin pulled herself wearily from one sickbed to another in the ailing village. Each day she saw more of the still hale burdened with pitiful bundles of their most needful possessions going out and away from this cursed place.

It was a toll of days later that she once more saw the harper. And because she had come from the deathbed of the miller's last child, she dared to walk as quickly as she could to face him, nor did he withdraw at her coming.

"I know not who or what you are," she said in the voice of one so wearied she found it hard to hunt for the proper words. "It is plain we are cursed---Dongannan dies---and all for the wildness of a man deep in drink. If there is anything of good within you, light some hope that we can survive."

Even as she spoke, Arran, the miller's wife, came into the street. She had loosed her hair to hang in a wild tangle and she went to her knees before the entrance to the great hall.

"The curse of a mother, may it lie heavy on you for your greed and black heart. No lord of ours are you and may you die unforgiven, lie in our cursed fields, and meet with the Black Master who sent you to torment us."

Then she keened forth the wail for the dead and other pale women tottered to stand behind her, adding their voices to hers.

Catlin, however, after a first glance, kept her attention for the hunchbacker harper. And now a spark of anger rose within her and she burst forth, "For the sin of one man do you doom a village? If aught is to be done, tell me now!"

Those cavern-set eyes met hers and she held the glance between them with a fierce tightness. Dongannan she was and Dongannan she would fight for.

"What is taken can be returned. There is no promise---you have only hope." In spite of his age his voice was certainly that of a bard.

Once more he turned the donkey and went from her. But what he had said gave her purpose now.

"Return what is taken." She thought of Kathal who had retreated to his inner chamber and barred the door against all comers, as if he feared the very thing she now knew she must do.

Hardly able to keep her feet because of hunger weakness (for she had seen supplies from the hold divided in the village) and weariness, Catlin turned back.

The keening of the women was a sobbing in the air and she saw the sullen, angry looks of the men, slowly gathering behind them before the great gate. They did not deter her from entering. In fact, they shrank away from her as if she now carried the burden of the curse on her bowed shoulders.

Catlin came into the silent great hall, now a cave of dusk in spite of the wan daylight without. She knew well where Kathal was. No food or water had passed his barred door for more than---she tried to count time dizzily---two days now. She had gone each morning to call out to him but had heard nothing in return except movement and a low muttering as if he carried on long debates with that which only he could see. Now, as she summoned up strength to pound on that surface, there was no answer at all.

The door had been readied, from the day it was hung, for a place to make a final stand in hours of peril. She certainly could not beat down such a defense.

With one hand she brushed aside her lopsided limp coif and its draggled veil which somehow had stayed with her during the past days, for she could not remember now when she had bathed, worn clean body linen, and a fresh overrobe. The door remained a barrier, but there was the window.

Dongannan had not stood a siege since long before her own birth. The single window was barred, of course. but it was her only choice. Now she made herself look around for weapons against those bars.

At length she picked up a spit still in place above a long-dead fire. So armed, she went resolutely out into the open once more. The crowd at the gate had split apart. She thought she could see a dim and ominous blot, the hunched bard, far back, though none of the villagers looked upon him.

So wearied that she saved what strength she still had to drag the spit by one end rather than lift it, Catlin rounded the corner of the inner keep until she at last faced that window.

Yes, the bars were still there. It now remained to be seen how securely they were still set. She steadied the spit, raised it, and aimed one end spearwise at the base of the nearest bar.

"Lady---" That was a ghost of a voice, but she turned her head slowly, looked at Hew. His body was gaunt, his face thinned down to mere flesh over bone.

She had not time for explanations, there was that to be done---swiftly---and she was the only one left to do it.

“In," she panted. “Must get in."

She was too wearied to know triumph as a fall of long decayed mortar followed her first jab. Then the spit was twisted from her hands and Hew was aiming with twice the force she was able to summon and to good purpose.

There came no sound from within to answer the noise their efforts produced. And a weather-stained curtain clouded what lay beyond. But Hew kept to his pounding and prying and at last two of the bars came free.

"Leave it---I shall be able to get through," Catlin told him. She dragged off her coif. Luckily she wore the less-confining skirt of a riding dress. But the opening looked small and she feared the attempt she would make, though said strongly to Hew, “Give me that to stand upon---"

Wobbling the man went to his knees. "My strength here and now, Lady."

Somehow she made it, clawing her way through the curtain into the darkness of the room before. The smell of death had been with her for days, but here was another more subtle stench---that which was of madness and evil.

Though the room was dark, there was a single spot of light coming from something lying on the bed. She could hear snuffling as from a beast and a hand appeared within the limits of that dim light. A hand holding a drawn dagger.

“Out—away---thief---“ the three words came as three separate shouts. The knife swung viciously through the light into dark and back again, weaving a pattern over that spot of light.

Catlin swung out her own arm in a need for a weapon to defend herself. She caught at the edge of the curtain and found strength to rip it from the hangers.

Now she could see better. Kathal---no, that thing crouched on the bed, filthy, ragged, bearded, twisted of face bore no resemblance to even the drunken youth she had last seen twirling his treasure as he rode home. It was the treasure piece which had given off that spot of light and now what it emitted was growing even brighter.

Like a giant spider Kathal sprang for her and only a half-instinctive swirl of the length of heavy cloth in her hands kept that dagger from her flesh. He was screaming raggedly such oaths as perhaps even most armsmen would not know. But the cloth fell over him and brought him down.

Before he could rise, she seized from a side shelf a tankard---empty but heavy enough to pull down her weakened arm. Catlin swung it awkwardly until the wallowing thing at her feet gave a gasping cry and was still.

She lurched across to the bed, and her hand closed upon the jeweled spray. It was like grasping a coal from the fire's heat, but she held on. Backing, her eyes ever on that mound of Kathal and curtain, she reached the window and dared enough to turn around and struggle out. The jewel she had put in her bodice for safekeeping, and there also she felt its fire.

As she slipped through, there was no one to steady her to the ground. There was only the body of Hew, still grasping the spit. Shaking herself after her tumble, she was at his side quickly. But she had seen death too many times within the past days not to be unable to detect it now.

With the spit as a staff to keep her on her feet, she went on to the open gates. Those who had been there were gone, She might indeed be in a deserted village. She was kept on her feet only by the need to do what she must do.

Catlin was not surprised when she came to the opening of the faint trace which led to Lugh's Mound to see there the hunchbacked bard. But she had no strength to gasp out any words---only the climb before her.

In the end it was the staff-spit which drew her up one painful step at a time. Until she did at last reach the heights and see the disturbed earth where Kathal must have delved.

Only it was filled in. With a broken sigh Catlin fell to her knees, and, using the spit, and then her own bruised and torn hands, she worked doggedly to scoop away the earth. To her surprise what she uncovered first was undoubtedly a shield, the metal of it half rust-eaten away.

"Iron, cold iron, Lady, and as a taunt years ago."

Even turning her head had become an almost impossible task, but she looked up and over her shoulder. Yes, it was the hunchback who sat there on his donkey, and, as she sighted him, he once more swept a hand over the ancient harp and notes of sorrow, such sorrow as even the last few days had not brought her, sent tears channeling down her grimy face.

She caught the shield with both hands and put all her strength to pulling. Since it must have been moved by Kathal earlier, it yielded to her now.

Light blazed forth and she was looking into what might be the end of a stone-walled chamber. There was a raised block in its middle and on that lay---she could not be sure what it was since the blaze was so bright. But unconsciously she brought her hands to the thing which had been searing her breast. When that was in the open, it twisted and turned and moved from her hold like a living thing until it joined with that other on the stone.

Then came such sound as entered into every part of her bone and flesh. What words beat in that refrain she could not tell, but strength was flowing back into her. It was almost as if she had become some other, apart from the earth she knew. She could remember with pity, but even that emotion was fading.

Catlin was on her feet, but she did not try to enter that chamber. Instead she was startled by a whinny and turned to see the harper. That was no donkey on which he was ungainly crouched, but a fine stallion of cloudy gray whose hooves shone like burnished silver.

And mounted in the saddle, his fingers lovingly caressing the strings of a silver harp, was no hunchback. This was a youth, and yet there was age in his eyes as if the years had no hold on him. Black his hair, held by a silver band, and his clothing was green, the green of first spring leaves---his cloak flung back a warm scarlet.

She knew him then for one out of the ancient tales---he was one of the People---those who had their own dwelling place which was not her world, though they might journey through that at their will.

His harping fell to a muted thread of sound. "No longer is the High Crown held from us by the menace of our old enemy," he was speaking and yet every word was a note of song. "Lady, of your courtesy, bring hither that which is rightfully that of my Queen."

Now Catlin did enter the chamber and her hands went out to what lay on the block. She indeed held a circlet of bright stones, pale gold and brilliant formed as might a wreath of flowers. It no longer burned, rather from it flowed such peace as filled one even as had his song.

Slowly she turned, reluctant to give to another this marvel which renewed life. But take it she did, passing the spit, then pushed aside the shield---both of the iron which legend said were deadly to what she believed him to be.

She held up to him the crown. He had swung aside his harp and brought forth what seemed a veil of mist in which he wrapped her find.

"You have held our power in truth," he said, "for this is one key to our own place. Lady, I have watched you fight that which the great cursing brought about and fight it valiantly. Come to us in all honor for already you bear within you something of that which is our birthright."

Catlin looked up into his eyes---green---or were they gold? They were pools which beckoned her to dive within. He had dismounted and now came to her, his hands empty and outstretched. Catlin took a deep breath. She was filled again, not by mist, but by a sheltering warmth of one coming home after a long sorrowful journey. She laid her palms on his. It was as if they were now one and always would be.

 

 



 

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