A Short Story
By Andre Norton
NOTE: This is a short story that was found in Andre’s files in April of 2015. It is the precursor to the novel “Rusted Armor” by Andre Norton and Caroline Fike. Neither of which has ever been published anywhere except on this website.
Daylight shone in a ragged splotch around him. One of the forest giants brought to earth in a spring storm, tearing with it the lesser trees, thus had opened a space to the sky. He half lay his back against the fallen trunk.
The cut above his eye pained him, gift of a villain having both with a stone and power is the arm. The stench came from his ragged surcoat, clotted with dung.
First he had been bred rage, such a near over powering fury as he had never before. Yet still there had been a hope. He had lived under Lord Stormund’s eye since he had been sent, a bewildered child of eight, to be fostered by the Vacks. Surely his lord knew well what kind of man he was – enough to question their lies!
They had gripped the cross Father Carmon had held, even as he himself had gave their oath – the Damsel Arni. She did not swear, she did not have to. It was plain to all who watch that she came in fear. Her head had lifted, she had stared straight at him, her face became a mask of terror then, with hands up as if to ward off an attack, she had turned and run – assuring all who watched that indeed he was guilty.
He rested his head against the lichen cushioned bark of the fallen tree and starred up at the fraction of sky. There was no he to deal with memory by closing eyes. The castle courtyard held him again he saw the greasy scullion brought from the kitchen to play his part, kneeling to hack the spurs from their owner. The shield with his birth right arms, the black pard, yellow-red eyes carefully depicted to face the foe – was set up against the wall, while those he had been so proud to ride with struck at it in turn with lances until it was dented and the Pard in Pride could no longer be clearly seen.
His sword! – For the first time since he had dropped here he uttered a sound – a moan of one deep wounded. His sword, hammered into shards by the blow’s of the smith’s heaviest tool. Then they had opened path to the great gate of the castle. He, by some strength of pride, had managed to walk that as those about turned their back to him.
The village folk had gathered without. Clots of dung, stones, had rained on him. Somehow he had managed to look straight ahead as if there were no assailants. He had become deaf to the obscenities they had shouted and he could no longer hold the memory until after the forest had swallowed him.
His initial raging anger had died into a sword strong purpose. They had lied, and Lord Stormand had accepted their lies. However that did not mean that any of their twisted words held truth. He was free of Leigh oath – now his life was his to order. Gasping painfully he leaned forward, his forehead supported by crossed arms where those rested on his knees. No longer did his control hold, moisture spilled from his near closed eyes. He willed memory away with all the strength he could summon. This was death of a sort, the death of Huon of Rennay – let it be so!
Mercifully there followed time of darkness. He aroused from that as one comes from a sleep that does not renew, rather leaves one lethargic. The sky overhead was that of night. Then he saw them – the cold jewels of the stars.
“The Sword of Victory!” that constellation was said to have been very visible on his birth night and the midwife had prophesied great things on his behalf because of it.
He laughed harshly. Great things indeed. Yes, he would go down in the rolls of family history – the first knight to be broken of his rank and eternally shamed. Only Huon had been that, and Huon was dead.
The rank smell of his befouled surcoat sickened him. He tore it off. The mail underneath and the quilted nagueton remained. But first water – his mouth was painfully dry.
Somewhere in the wood he heard the pack song of a wolf – the upper branches of the trees about were teased by a breeze, but yet he heard what could be only the gurgle of a stream that he used as a guide, coming out shortly upon the banks of his goal.
He had hunted the great stags in this wooded land and here was the vestiges of a trail which perhaps those mighty creatures had hoof-stamped to reach water.
Stag? He paused in the matter of freeing himself from his mail. Stag, Hart, Buck – the prizes of any hunter. Thus – he, too, might still be hunted – there he was – Hart. A good enough name.
Freed of his befouled and sweat stiffened clothing he drank deeply, from his cupped hands and then stood knee deep in the stream, stooping now and then to bring up harsh sand with which he scrubbed himself thoroughly, nearly drawing blood through the abrazed skin. Somehow he began to feel oddly lighter as if he were free of more than just that grime he rubbed away.
Recognizing a familiar herb within reach he pulled cress and chewed it, forcing himself to swallow the mess as he then grabbed hands full of rough grass to wipe his smarting body. Curtained by the tree’s shadow he dressed, shirt, quilted and padded nagueton, hashed drawers, and boots. But the mail he left lie where it had been dropped when he made his way back to that small clearing.
Settling again in the shadow of the fallen giant he burrowed into the matted leave of seasons. All at once he was tired, as worn as if he had just dismounted after a weary day of riding on some foray.
He fumbled at an inner pocket of a sleeve and brought forth a knife – a sorry weapon indeed but all that was left him. Though if he died under wolf fangs what did it matter now?
He dreamed, anguished dreams which wet his body again with fear sweat. Always he faced peril eye to eye in those dreams and yet none of those confrontations he retreated in the last two he had brought down a largely faceless enemy. There came a shriek which was not part of any dream and he awoke to stare up into the sky of mid-morning in time to see a hawk rise into open sight, a struggling furred body in its talons.
Slowly he levered himself up from the mass of molded leaves, aware not only where he was but why. He was going to survive, that oath he sworn within, there was no one to care now but himself. This much he knew and to lock the thought about him as he might again buckle on the discarded mail. He was innocent; the evil lay with them and not him. Therefore he must make it his quest to right his honor by one means or another –
At the edge of the clearing a bush moved. Hart, knife in hand, was on his feet, rimmed by a collar of green leaves a grey head appeared. Wolf! And he, with the fallen trunk behind him, could not flee.
The beast moved forward, it’s attention fixed firmly on him. A spear? He might as well wish for a horse. Yet he gripped the knife firmly, stiffening again as the brush half hiding the wolf shock once more.
Gray as the wolf hide yet showing well above the animal, a fold of cloak swung free as a man pushed through, stumbling into the full open. As did his four footed companion, he stared at Hart. There were many age lines cutting the brown flesh of his face and his hair was a dusky halo of grey-black. However his blue eyes were sharply aware that Hart sensed the knowledge behind them, assessing him.
“You are no hunter!” the wood man spoke in a voice which held castle accent. For all his drab and tattered garb this was no peasant gleaning fallen wood as was the villagers’ right. Nor was there any sight of any weapons, save a knife like into that Hart held, thrust in a battered sheath corded to the length of rope which belted him.
Hart swallowed. There was a needed answer but he could not word it.
“I am Owlglass”, the wolf man his too long pause.
“Just so. And whom are you – or perhaps what?”
Hart forced himself to a truthful answer;
“A broken man”, he replied with the name the world now lay upon him. “As for a name – let that of the hunted be mine – Hart”
Owlglass advanced. Cords held a half plump bag to his shoulders. His four-footed companion was gone, once more sucked up brush.
“Out of Gamlin – or Stamglen?” Owlgrass shrugged off his burden. His glaze swept beyond Hart to a yellowish, puffed growth on the downed tree.
There was no need to conceal the truth. “Stamglen.”
With a sudden swing of the knife, he had pulled from his belt the hermit slashed down, slicing the growth from its rooting, twitching it aloft on the point of his blade.
“A lucky day.” He might be addressing Hart or assuring himself. “This is Bloodclear. If there be pus in a wound a decoction of this banish it.” He resheathed his knife after he tossed his find into the bag. “Now,” he turned his full attention to Hart again. “A broken man – leigeless I presume – and out of Stamglen. I would suspect that you have come afoul of Sir Lazarous.”
Owlglass’s many winkles creased as the man smiled.
“Oh yes, am I astounding you by guessing right? The mighty Champion is well known for tangled games used to rid himself of any hint of a rival.”
“Though,” he seated himself back against the downed tree and a wave of his hand, as if they had met in some hall, he signaled to Hart to join him, “you are young to be swept out of his path in such a permanent fashion. Indeed he must have taken a strong dislike to you.”
Hart could only believe that the hermit knew the shameful manner of his departure from Stamglen. But how – old knowledge? They still told stories of far sight. Also, about Owlglass there were gathered a number of tall tales. Only – unlike his own usage at the castle this man seemed to immediately have seen the source of his trouble.
The hermit turned to rummage again in his bag and bringing out a smaller pouch from which he took a brown cake near the size of his hand, holding it out to Hart.
“Eat.” Making an order of that word.
It was courser than castle bread but tasty. Hart ate. Owlglass produced a second cake, holding it between his teeth as he freed his hands to lift a leathern bottle also from the bag.
Thus, without more words between them, Hart became oddly linked with the man who, as he chewed and swallowed, spoke not of castles or outlawry but rather of the forest. There was something in the floe of the words, picturing this and that, which kept the younger man absorbed. His world had vanished; he had come anew into this.
As Owlglass continued, the inhabitants of the new world came and went. Hart watched the great wolf push again out of the bushes and relax himself like a hound, seeming to listen with understanding to the hermit. Squirrels swung down to run along the fallen tree, halting for a breath or two out of time behind the man.
Hart slipped into, as he had mail. When Owelglass returned the empty packet and bottle to his bag. He was ready to obey a wave of the hermits hand and follow, wolf padding before them.
Now and then the older man stopped to harvest a twist of leaves, a knob of bark gum, each time explaining the service he expected to garner from it. When there came a deep grunting from the underbrush he halted, signaling his companion to do likewise. A snouted head, bearing the curve of wicked tusks, showed. Boar – to face such on foot –!
Owlglass fronted the animal straightly, his hands on his hips as might a sergeant bringing an archer to attention. Though he made no sound the boar snorted and was gone.
“Impudence! That one is getting above himself again.”
Shaking his head the hermit on again apparently following a well known trail though Hart could see no sign of such.
They came to a downward slope which continued to steepen until one had to catch at a bush for anchorage now and then when boots skidded in the leaf mulch. Here was more light and when they reached level land again Hart could see they were in a gully between half hidden walls. Nor were these natural rocks, but rather had a cutter’s edge to them. Seeing those Hart knew at last the land they were invading.
Those who hunted from Stamglen told dark stories of this and did not ride in this direction. Huon would have hesitated, Hart, having faced what he believed to have been the worst life had to offer, kept on.
On his right the height were rising, or the road was sinking he could guess which. Their way curved and he could see beyond the curve a tower one side which must be the cliff itself. Owlglass’s hand fell against a door which could be wood turned stone, entered, then held it for Hart to follow.
What lord of manner of woods runner had caused this to be erected Hart could not guess. Plainly this was how the hermit’s shelter had been for perhaps years. Now it became also his. There were no weapons on the wall, no sign of any need of defense. Beside the fireplace were reed baskets in which lay a treecat, two small kittens pressed against her, a wolf cub with bandaged forepaw and a lemur such as men very seldom saw.
The time which Huon had always known and the duties which had divided his days since childhood no longer existed. In place of the weapons which he had looked for there were ledges protruding from the walls and on those stood books, bound in wood and hide, more than he had ever seen even in Father Camor’s quarters were the Father had had a second duty of tutor to the pages of his lordships sons.
He found himself at school again. Owlglass taught – by day when they traveled the forest ways, by pitchlight from books at night. The hermit gave no reason for taking on a scholar who might have been reluctant. Hart somehow found he did not want to ask why he was here. For his studies built up a wall against the past he had no intention of breaking.
At times they heard sounds of a hunting horn. Then Owlglass took a route which was away from that activity. However one morning he neither changed pace nor direction. Instead he part lifted a curtain of thorned and berried branches so they were under cover but could see a path which was more than just a narrow game trail.
Hart caught the thud of hooves and expected to see hounds and riders appear. It was a white mare that came first into sight, and, clinging to the side saddle clinched about her – Arni. Her coff was gone, her dark hair flying free.
The girl swayed, letting fall reins to clutch at the ribbon braided mane of her mount. She glanced back and uttered a cry close to a whimper, loosed one hand to slap at the mare behind her saddle. The mare reared clearly out of her control. Hart started forward.
In the direction Arni had come a second horse broke cover. The rider a stranger to Hart, a thick shouldered youth whose heavy build suggested he might favor an axe over the sword, though now he held no weapon.
He was grinning, his thick lips parted over yellowish teeth giving him the appearance of some villain born. Yet he was wearing hunting garb of rich yellow-brown stuff and there was a gold scarlet house badge on his breast. He was so close now that that could be read.
A lizard with a crown of horns on its head – the arms of Lord Lazaorus, Champion of Stormont, yet the hunter now reigning his horse to approach Arni at a walk had not appeared in the Champion’s following before Hart’s disgrace.
“Ride, run, whore! You’ll answer for it.” The stranger swung from his horse, now standing quiet as a well trained war mount would, however before he was near enough to seize her, Arni had thrown herself under the mare.
He flung himself forward to get at her. Only the mare which he ignored shot head forward to bare teeth which closed on his bonnet and some of the hair beneath, flinging both into the air. His hand shot up and he struck the mount between the eyes a blow which even in their hiding place Hart could hear.
The animal backed, shaking her head and sounding something like a scream. One hind hoof was entangled with Arni’s skirt. Having just reach her feet she staggered and went again to hands and feet.
Hart moved, suffering a deep scratch across his jaw as he battled the thorn brush for freedom. There was an ear splitting trumpet, the stranger’s horse, teeth bared in turn, was facing the mare.
His rider paid no attention, instead he grabbed a fistful of Arni’s hair, jerking her up as she screamed.
“No! By the Lady – No!”
Hart moved a pace or two to the left reaching a stand behind the hunter, who was slapping Arni’s face first one side then the other. In Hart’s hand was the knife. He aimed not to kill but disable as he struck down at the hunter’s arm and felt the blade enter flesh, followed by a gush of blood.
And now the Novel "Rusted Armor" by Andre Norton and Caroline Fike
Never Before seen short story by Andre Norton
Released here for the first time
Copyright ~ Estate of Andre Norton
Online Rights - Andre-Norton-Books.com
Donated by - Sue Stewart
Duplication of this story for profit of any kind NOT permitted.