THIRTY-SIX

“BLESS ME bones, Tip, but this trip is ferther than I remember, eh? Yes, quite right. It always seems ferther when ye’re in a hurry. Quite right.” Pym cocked an eye skyward and gauged the day by the sun. “Nearing middleday, Tip. Right enough, an’ I’m hungry. We ‘uns’d ought to athought to bring a bite to eat. Some of Emm’s fresh-baked bread and a noggin of the dark would hit the spot, eh? And a soup bone for ye, Tipper. Yes.”

The black dog wagged her tail to the sound of her master’s voice and walked along beside him, lifting her ears now and then when a rabbit or squirrel rustled the leaves of a holly bush near the road as they passed. But Tip did not give chase, content merely to pad peacefully alongside her master, to press her head into his hand now and then to receive a loving pat on her head or a scratch between her ears.

Presently they came to a place in the road that looked to the tinker somehow familiar. “Ho there, Tip. This be the place, I’ll warrant. What say ye? Looks the place to me, eh? Yes, it does.” Pym gave a quick glance both directions along the road to see if he had been followed, or if any other travelers were about to see him.

They were alone, so he stepped quickly into the forest, pushing through a yew thicket to where the forest thinned somewhat and a trail wound among the trunks of trees.

“Is this the place, Tip?” I tell ye, I don’t know. Thought ‘twas, I did. Now I’m not acertain.” After some time wandering among the trees, Pym decided that they had not remembered the right place after all and so retraced his steps to the road once more and set off.

“Ah!” be cried a little further down the way. “This must be it! Yet, how could I forget?” Again they pushed into the forest only to become disoriented before going very far. “No, sir.” Pym stood with hand on hips, craning his neck up at the tall trees surrounding him. “Tweren’t here. This’s nivver the place, Tipper. Back we go.”

The noonday sun shone down through the interwoven branches above, casting a fretwork of cool shadow upon them as they trudged down the bare earth road yet again. The further they went, the less certain the tinker became. “I don’t know how I’ll ivver find it, Tip. I don’t seem to recall the place-ivverthing looks so unlikely hereabouts.” He stopped and stared around him. “I don’t know what to do, Tip. What we ‘uns need is a sign. That’s it, yessir. A sign!”

So taken was he with the notion of a sign that Pym clasped his hands right then and there and raised them up to the heavens. “Here me, ye gods!” At a sudden thought he added, “ ‘Specially whativver god it is the Dragon King serves. I’ll warrent ye’d be more concerned with the King, so hear me, whativver yer name might be.”

Pym paused here to consider how to proceed, nodded to himself, and then continued, “Ye see, the King has lost his son-snatched away he were, yes. And he needs his sword to get the boy back with. Now, I don’t know fer acertain that the sword we ‘uns found belongs to the King, but might do-’tis a handsome sword.

“Now,” explained Pym carefully, “I have put this sword by in a safely place, ye see. Trouble is, I can’t remember me where. Don’t recognize the place no more, ye see-and me who’s been atraveling this road fer a score of years, too. That’s why I am calling on ye fer to help. I need a sign to show the way to the sword-where I left it, that is.”

The tinker lowered his hands, thought for a moment, then raised them again and added, “It’s not fer me, it’s fer the King, ye see. He’s in trouble bad, he is, and likely needs his sword-leastwise it couldn’t hurt. Since yer his god, maybe ye could send the sign. That is, if ye have a care fer mortal troubles.”

Pym stopped speaking and lowered his hands. “Well, Tipper-” he began, but before he could finish the big black dog began barking. “Shh! What is it, lady girl? Eh, Tip? What is it?”

Out from an immense gorse hedge stepped a black stag. Tip barked furiously, but the deer, moving slowly, regally, head high and antlers glinting in the sun like silver, remained calm and unperturbed. The graceful animal crossed the road, passing not more than a dozen paces in front of them, and then stopped to look at the man and dog watching him.

Tip barked, her tongue hanging sideways out of her mouth, legs stiff, hackles raised. Pym laid a hand to her collar. The stag moved with lordly pomp once more into the forest, paused to eye the spectators one last time-as much as to say, “Follow me, if you dare”-then lifted its forelegs over a bayberry bush and leapt away, its tail bobbing white behind.

Tip could not stay still any longer. She barked wildly and shook her head, pulling free of her master’s grip; the chase was on. “Tip! Come back here!” shouted Pym after the bounding dog. Tip reached the bayberry bush, paused to yap once at her master, and then wriggled through the bush and after the deer.

“By the gods’ beards!” muttered Pym, “I don’t know what’s come on that dog.” He could hear Tip yelping excitedly as she crashed through the brush after her game. Pym sighed and trudged off into the woods to retrieve his pet, knowing she could never catch the stag but would not give up easily.

He shrugged through the brush and stumbled into the trail, hastening after the sounds of the impromptu hunt. The trail widened as he went along, broadening as it reached a place where giant old trees grew tall, clearing all other trees from beneath their overarching limbs: huge old chestnuts, oaks, and hickories. He did not stop to gawk at the trees, but rushed along head down, calling for Tip to come back. Then, without warning, the dog’s yapping ceased. Pym plunged down a shallow bank and through a patch of creeping ivy and glanced up to find himself in a secluded hollow.

Before him, on her haunches, sat Tip, wagging her tail and panting. A little way off from them stood the stag, head lifted high, bearing its crown of antlers as regally as any King, gazing calmly at them with its great dark liquid eyes. As the tinker watched, the stag lifted a hoof and nudged a stone at its feet-a white stone from a neat little pile of white stones.

“Tipper,” whispered Pym, hardly breathing, “lookee there! The stag has led us to our spot!”

The deer turned and regarded them casually once more, then lowered his head and trotted smoothly away, his flowing shape blending with the forest around him and vanishing from sight.

Pym crept forward to the place where the deer had stood. “Yes, sir. This be the spot, Tip. Lookee, here’s the stones we ‘uns left to mark it, and here’s the hazelnut.” He tilted his head to regard the lofty tree, then walked around it to the hole in its hollow trunk. Taking a deep breath, Pym thrust his hand through the hole and grabbed.

His hand closed on thin air. His heart leaped to his throat. Gone, he thought. Someone’s taken it! He shoved his hand deeper into the hollow space and stretched his fingers, feeling the soft, damp interior of the tree, but no sword. Frantically he thrust his arm in again and searched the depths of the hidden space, feeling nothing but the spongy, rotten wood. “It’s gone, Tip!” he cried hopelessly. “The sword is gone!”

Just as he was about to withdraw his arm, the tips of his fingers brushed against something hard. “What’s this?” he said, and pushed his arm back in up to the shoulder, as far as it would go, standing on tiptoes, straining so hard that sweat beaded up on his face and rolled down his neck.

His hand closed on an object cold and hard. He gulped. Could it be? Yes! It was the sword! The tinker withdrew his hand slowly, and the hollow tree gave up its prize-a long, narrow bundle wrapped in tatters of rags.

“Here ‘tis, Tip! We ‘uns found the sword! Yes, yes! Lookee, Tip, here ‘tis at last!” He cradled the bundle to him and then, just to make certain, peeked between the folds of the rags. He saw a dull gleam of metal and part of an inscription on the blade. “ Tis the veery sword, Tip. The veery one as we ‘uns left behind. Yes, sir.” He glanced guiltily around him like a miser who fears discovery with his treasure. “But we ‘uns dare not stay here, no sir. It’s back to Askelon and give this sword directly into the King’s own hand, eh? Quite right, yes. Directly into the King’s own hand.”

So saying, the tinker took a length of twine from his trousers pocket and wrapped it around the sword’s concealed hilt and tied a loop through which he put his arm. He started off at once, slinging the mighty weapon over his shoulder, making for Askelon Castle to give his present to the Dragon King.

Some way further ahead on the road to Askelon, where Pelgrin thinned and gave way to farmland hills, a brown pony wandered riderless across a field of young corn, pausing now and then to nibble at the tender tops of the shoulder-high plants. This intrusion did not go unnoticed, for a pair of quick, sharp eyes had seen the animal from a distance, and the boy who looked out of those eyes was slowly and with utmost caution making his way across the field to intercept the horse.

Renny forced himself to steal along stalk by stalk, row by row, all the while his heart screaming at him to run and capture the wonderful creature before him. A horse! Who would have believed it? A horse wandering loose through his father’s field. If he could catch it… no, he would catch it, and then he would have a horse of his very own!

Now he was close, very close. The pony stood nipping at the new leaves, unaware of the boy’s presence. Renny crept near and waited. The brown horse plodded a few steps nearer and paused to munch some unripe ears of corn just forming on the stalk.

“Shhh…” said the boy, as quietly as a sigh. “There, now. Shhh.”

He put out his hand to snag the animal’s bridle. Tarky saw the movement, tossed his head up quickly, and backed away with a loud whinny. “Easy now,” soothed Renny. “Easy… I won’t hurt ‘ee. No need to fear. No harm’ll come to ‘ee.” He approached slowly, the pony backing away step by step, tossing his head stubbornly.

Renny moved closer, whispering endearments to the animal. But Tarky, skittish from his days of running wild in the forest, kept just out of reach, and at last tired of the game and turned to prance away. The boy realized it was now or never and lunged at the beast, diving headlong at it. Tarky gave a startled neigh and dodged away. But the youngster, with quick desperation and deft fingers, snatched up the dangling reins. The horse neighed in fright and reared, jerking its head away; but it was caught in the grasp of a most determined young master, and Renny refused to relinquish his find. He scrambled to his feet and grabbed the bridle, his heart thudding against his ribs with excitement.

Then, as if he had been doing it all his life, the farmer’s son led his captured prize down the low sloping hillside to the house. Tarky gentled under the lad’s touch and allowed himself to be led away peaceably.

When they reached the rude farmhouse, the boy loosed one wild whoop which brought his parents into the yard. “Look what I’ve got here,” Renny said proudly.

“Where did ‘ee get that?” asked his father when be recovered from the sight of his son holding a fine horse, both saddled and bridled, in his own yard.

“Where on this green earth?” echoed his mother. “I found him,” replied Renny. “Found him eating corn in our field.”

The farmer stared speechless at his wife, who returned his look with one of equal amazement. If the horse had materialized before them out of thin air, they could not have been any more surprised. And there stood their own flesh-and-blood son holding this creature-it surpassed all belief.

Lest there should be any misunderstanding of his claim or intent, Renny announced, “He’s mine. I found him-’ee belongs to me, and I’m keeping him.”

His father came close and raised his hand to stroke the pony’s flank. “Tis a fairly fine horse-no doubt. But ‘ee don’t belong here.”

“He’s mine now.” Renny tightened his grip on the reins and thrust his jaw forward with determination. “I’m keeping him,” he repeated firmly.

“This be a nobleman’s mount,” said the fanner, examining now the fine leather of the saddle and tack. “Doesn’t belong here.” The boy darted a quick glance at his mother for help, his lower lip quivering. The kindly woman came close and placed her hand on her son’s shoulder. “What your father means, Renny, is that this one must go back to his rightful owner.”

“Sooner the better,” added the farmer.

“I’m his owner now,” maintained Renny, his dark eyes filling up with tears. “He’s mine.”

“No, son,” said his mother gently. She patted the slim shoulders and brushed his shock of hair from his eyes. “Someone’s bound to come looking for him. If you keep him, they’ll take him away.”

“Take him by force, they will. ‘Ee can’t stay.”

“But… I found him!” wailed Renny. The injustice of it stung bitterly. To have his horse so swiftly taken from him in the moment of his triumph-it was too much to bear.

The farmer frowned and turned stiffly away. Renny sobbed and his mother soothed, trying to ease the hurt. “I know what ‘ee can do!” she said, brightening. “Take the horse to Askelon-people there will know who his master is. Methinks if’‘ee return him hasty, there will be a reward in it for ‘ee.”

At the mention of the reward Renny stopped sniffling and rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. “Reward?”

“Maybe.”

His father turned and added, “Why, that’s the answer! Take him to Askelon and claim your reward. Might bring a coin or two, a fine animal like this. A man’d be most hearty grateful to get him back, might give a good reward.”

“I could ride him?” asked Renny tentatively. “Ride him to Askelon?”

The farmer glanced at his wife and scratched his jaw. “Well, now, Renny, I don’t be-”

“I know how to ride!” Renny said quickly. “The Dragon King himself taught me, remember?”

“By my lights, ‘ee did,” agreed his father. “But it’s a far ride, and you’d have to walk back all alone.”

“I don’t care,” shouted Renny. “Could I take him? Please?”

“If your mother says so, I say so,” hedged his father.

The woman looked at the light dancing in her son’s eyes and did not have the heart to dash it out. She nodded slowly. “I’ll fix ‘ee a rucksack to take with ‘ee so’s ‘ee won’t get hungry on the way.” She turned and went into the low-built farmhouse.

“I’ll ride him all the way to Askelon!” crowed Renny. “And I’ll claim the reward!”

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