Rusted Armor

By Andre Norton and Caroline Fike

Chapter Two

As Owlglass strode a pace or so in advance, inhabitants of the wooded world came and went. Hart watched the great wolf emerge again from the brush to pad alongside the hermit like a docile hound, watching and listening to his companion—with seeming understanding. Squirrels scuttled down to run along low hanging branches, pausing for the space of a breath or two, quite within reach of the older man, unafraid.

Hart slipped gratefully into this new peaceful existence as easily as into a soft new jerkin. When Owlglass had beckoned to him, the former knight readily obeyed and followed the hermit without question, as if he had always trod the woodland ways, a companion to a grizzled old man and a wolf.

Now and then the hermit paused to harvest a twist of leaves or a knob of gum that oozed from a scar in the bark of a tree, always carefully explaining to the young man the use of each find. When there came a deep throaty grunting from the underbrush, Owlglass brought them to a halt. A long-snouted head appeared, clacking wickedly curved tusks against upper jawbones. Hart froze. Wild boar—to face one on foot—!

Unperturbed, Owlglass fronted the ugly animal straightly, hands on his hips as if he were an arms master calling a lazy archer to task. Though the man made no sound, but simply stared, the boar snorted once and was gone.

“Impudence! That one is getting above himself again.” Shaking his head, the hermit moved ahead, as surely as if following a well marked trail, though none was evident to Hart.

Not long before dark they reached a down-slope descending so rapidly that each had to clutch at the scattered bushes for anchorage now and then as their boots skidded in the leaf mold. When they reached level ground, Hart could just make out that they had arrived in the bottom of a gully between high stone walls. And those were not entirely natural, but showed evidence, even in the dimming light, of tooling. Seeing this Hart guessed where they must be.

Hunters and patrols out of Stamglen told dark stories of this place and no amount of urging would entice them to pass here. Indeed, Huon would have hesitated to enter, but Hart, having faced the worst he felt that life could exact, pressed on with hardly a care.

On the right rose jagged heights, or perhaps the road was merely cut deeper and deeper; he could not guess which in the enveloping darkness. The way curved sharply and he could just glimpse ahead a tower silhouetted against the sky, chiseled from the living stone of the cliff. Owlglass’s hand fell at length against a door of stone that had once been wood. It swung open soundlessly and he entered, holding it for Hart to follow.

What lord or master stonemason had wrought this, Hart would not chance a guess. Plainly it was the hermit’s domain, looking as if it had sheltered him for years out of time. Now it might also serve Hart as a refuge, but at present that was but a wisp of thought. No weapons hung on the wall within. What need was there for armed defense? Legend, rumor and fear served quite well to keep away troublemakers.

Beside a wide fireplace, in what appeared the great hall, rested three reed baskets: one held a treecat with her two small kittens pressed against her, the other a wolf cub with a bandaged forepaw, and the third a rare lemor. All these were greeted cheerily as the hermit stirred coals of a fire into greater heat.

The life and duties of Huon that had measured his days from childhood, no longer existed. Where there should have been familiar weapons, now ledges protruded from the stone walls, lined with leather- and wood-bound books, more than the young man had seen, even in Father Corman’s cell where the priest tutored the pages and princes.

Indeed Hart found himself in school again, like an un-lessoned lad. He learned by day in the forest’s shade-dappled pathways and at night by pitch-light from the hermit’s great store of books. Owlglass gave no reason for taking on a pupil well beyond the usual age for learning craft. It made little difference to Hart what the hermit’s reason was for welcoming him, sufficient was the fact that his studies began to build a wall against past memories, one the young man had no intention of breaching.

As the days merged into weeks and weeks into months, little remained in the look or manner of Hart to link him with his past life as a Knight of Stamglen. His black hair, once neatly cropped at the bottom of his ears, grew to shoulder length. Gone, too, was his clean-shaven face, a rule of his knightly order. Now the “broken” man sported a heavy black brush on his face that would pass among the fiercest barbarian clan. Soon he might even be able to wear cheek braids. It fit his purpose to put far behind him all that linked him with his former profession.

But, though he gladly pursued a new learning and appearance, Hart’s determination for vindication lay at the root of all his efforts. To that end he delved deeply into the histories of the realm, seeking a reason for Sir Lazarous’s blow.

One day Hart stumbled on something in a volume that piqued his curiosity. The battered book contained records of noble families and their fiefs. To his surprise, he found no mention of a house of Moorced listing Sir Lazarous’s patent. Strange! He had always assumed that so influential a knight from a supposed illustrious clan would have that clan well listed among the Great Houses.

“So, you never learned much of his origin?” Hart gave a start as Owlglass now stood by his shoulder looking at the book page the young man kept smooth by two fingers.

“You have found something to remark on?” The hermit added a second question to his first.

“I chanced upon this record of the Great Houses but there is no mention of Moorced.” The student responded.

“Then you must seek farther,” Owlglass remarked with a slight quirk of his mouth, not quite a grin.

“Just how? I am not learned as a scribe or delver of records.”

“If I were seeking such information, I would lay out a plan. Try old maps, death records, namings and the like.” The grin took over. Clearly the teacher was delighted at the direction Hart’s curiosity was leading. He swept out an arm to indicate the bulging shelves. Not for the first time Hart wondered who had assembled this ill-stored library in such a remote place.

One afternoon, a seven-day after his discovery of the book of noble families, Hart decided to climb to a favorite spot he had noted on one of his circuits of the stronghold. Wrapping a borrowed cloak well about him against the biting wind of the heights above the keep, he started up a twisting set of narrow steps carved from the living stone.

As he neared the top of the rampart, Hart reached a wide ledge that cut back like a torn pocket into the cliff side. Under the overhanging rock he had found a small pool of the clearest and purest water he had ever tasted. It was here, where he knelt to quench the thirst brought on by the vigorous climb, he froze, like a frightened fawn at the sound of danger, staring at the unruffled surface of the water.

Shaking himself, he bent lower. Surely this was only a trick of the light. No—he continued to gaze at his reflection, his eyes—something was very different! His left eye no longer matched in color the steel blue of his right eye, but had become a vivid emerald green. He blinked and rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand and looked again. They remained the same. There was an emerald eye. A curious sensation ran through him, not quite physical—more like a mental quivering. This was nothing he could understand. What was happening to him?

Making his way back down the stair to the great hall of the hermit’s keep, the young man shouted, hoping his host had not gone trekking again. “Owlglass! Where are you? I must show you something!”

“No need to bellow, youngling.” The hermit spoke almost at Hart’s elbow, causing the former knight to start like a frightened hare. “My, you’re as fractious as a yearling buck. What passes?”

“My eye—look, Master! It is altered.” Hart almost shouted again in his agitation.

“Hmmm. ‘Tis passing strange.” Owlglass grasped the young man’s face between his gnarled hands and turned it about to catch the best light. “I’ve never seen the like of that.”

“But—but why? What can I do? It may be an evil portent.” Hart fidgeted and, for all his size and bearded face, looked like a scared boy.

“Well, lad, I’d say you ought to start at the same place you do whenever you want to know something new. Go to the books!”

“But, Master, there are scores and scores of them. Where do I start?”

“I seem to remember one that might well serve to point you right. It’s called Gifts, Mysteries and Other Oddities, or was it Curiosities? No matter, you’ll get the idea. I think it has a dark red leather binding with a symbol of a wheel burned on the spine, or some such.” Without further comment, the hermit turned and left Hart to seek his answers.

Hart fairly ran to the room where the precious books were kept and began to scan the shelves for a red leather volume. He found, to his frustration that there were at least a score or more of that color. He took each one in turn, searching for the mark of the wheel and, after much searching and sneezing at the dust he disturbed, at length found what he was seeking. It was surprisingly small, but then how many oddities were there to be recorded so?

He could have wept when he opened the book, for it was written in a crabbed and cramped hand. So small were the letters that his head began to ache after scarcely a candlemark of reading. In frustration he had to give up for the night, realizing that he needed full daylight to research this source.

Hart had not eaten in some hours, being so engrossed in his probing that he had forgotten all else. Now his belly demanded attention. He entered the larder and gathered some bread and a flask of goat’s milk and carried them to his room. The puzzle of the change in him kept him awake long into the night and troubled his dreams when finally he did sleep.

Morning brought no useful inspiration, only a nagging sense that he must get to the root of his strange metamorphosis. First asking Owlglass’s permission, he fetched the book of oddities and found a sunny perch beside the parapet of the tower in which he had his room.

Hours passed and with them Hart was alternately amused, skeptical and sometimes chilled by what he read. He began to lose hope of finding the answer he sought when he turned a page and reading nearly to the bottom, almost shouted with excitement. The first clue of any kind fairly sprung at him. The words on the yellowed, brittle page were partially obliterated, yet his study of them brought again the quiver he had felt on the rampart: “Tok of The Emerald Eye” and then “…age of Tchurk…”

Hart almost dropped the book in his excitement as he leaped up to go and find Owlglass. “Master, I have it.” He could not hold the book for trembling and the hermit took it from the young man to read for himself.

“I believe you do. But what to make of that last part?” He peered closer. “I think you must take a quill and work it like a child’s puzzle game. Find all the words that could fit by putting in missing letters. Then we will have something to take farther.”

Hart snatched up a pen and sharpened the nib. He began writing furiously as he spoke the possibilities: “cage, rage, sage, mage! That could be it! Tok of The Emerald Eye could be a mage. But what of Tchurk…?” The young man chewed on the end of his quill, then spit in disgust as he realized he would have to cut a new nib.

The hermit pulled at his beard, “It could be part of a place name or a family name or even a wizardly order.”

“I know,” Hart sighed with resignation, “more books.”

His teacher chuckled, “I will help you this time and if we find nothing, there is perhaps another way to get at the puzzle.”

When after two full days and part of a third, neither could find aught to solve the riddle of the incomplete name, Owlglass closed the book he was scanning with a snap. “Lad, it is time for a trip.”

“A trip?! Now? But we have no time for trekking. I will go through every book here until I find an answer!”

“Nay, but what if the answer lies elsewhere?” The hermit peered over the volume he was holding.

“It must be here. Have you not taught me that books hold great knowledge?”

“Aye, but not all knowledge. Betimes we must find another way. Trust me, youngling. I have not given over the search. Tomorrow we travel!”

Daylight found Owlglass and Hart far distant from the hermit’s Cliffside dwelling. The former knight knew better than to quiz his mentor about their destination or his reason for the trek. He would learn in due time, Owlglass’s time, not his. As always when they went abroad their shadowy lupine companion was not far from them as they moved on foot into strange territory. Hart learned soon after entering his new life that the wolf answered to the name of Softstep. Truly, for one so large of foot, his tread was amazingly silent, no matter the terrain.

They spoke little as the day progressed, too intent on the trail and its tricks. Moving steadily higher in elevation, the two men stopped at high-sun to eat some of the travel cakes that the hermit had prepared. Hart could see ahead a steep mountain range cut by a pass that appeared no more distant than a turn or two of a sand glass to reach. He ventured a question. “Do we enter that pass soon?”

“It is farther than it seems, lad, but our destination lies elsewhere.” Owlglass seemed disinclined to elaborate, so the younger man did not press him. He would know soon enough.

Their climb continued and some distance from the pass, the hermit turned abruptly from the path they had been following and struck off through a treacherous tumble of boulders. “There was a landslide here in the last thawing season, beware your stepping,” came his warning.

When it seemed that they could not possibly go more than a few more paces, a hitherto unseen crevice opened in the vertical face of the mountain. Wordlessly the old man slipped into its darkness, motioning Hart to follow.

From his carry pack, Owlglass produced the flickering light of a small taper. He moved forward again, not needing to caution Hart against the danger of the moisture-slicked stone underfoot. At length they came to a tangle of brush that all but blocked the end of the crevice and marked the beginning of a place unlike any the former knight had ever known.

The hermit motioned Hart to assist him and pressed against the blockage. Instead of being hopelessly entangled in briars, to the younger man’s astonishment, the mass seemed to part and draw back not unlike a cluster of snakes fleeing flames. The young man rubbed his eyes. Had he truly seen the briars and vines writhing away from Owlglass’s staff? He did not have time to consider, for the hermit launched into a rapid descent making Hart lengthen his strides to keep pace. The older man was clearly set on a familiar place. He neither looked left nor right to scan the surroundings.

“A camping place is near, but we must hasten. Darkness comes early here.” The hermit gave a low whistle to Softstep and was instantly answered by a soft whine from a short distance ahead. “Ah, our friend has found it.”

Hart wanted nothing more than to quiz Owlglass, but decided to hold off until they had made camp. When they had settled before a tiny fire, appetite sated, Hart turned with a lift of his eyebrows to his companion. Before he could form a question, the hermit chuckled. “I know you are fair bursting with questions, lad, but trust me. All will become clear in due course. This much I will say. We enter a place where learning comes from much deeper than books. You have been an apt pupil. Now we will see what you are truly made of.”

When the old man would say no more, Hart grunted and settled into his sleep roll. It was clear that he must be patient, though it fretted him much to hold his peace. Darkness closed in like a soft drape and he slipped into a sleep, of which, though peopled by many strange beings, he could name none and remember little when he awoke in the misty pre-dawn. A sensation of something akin to what he could only describe as heart hunger was all that remained for his night journeying.

 

 

 

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"Rusted Armor"
Copyright ~ Caroline Fike and the Estate of Andre Norton 2001
Online Rights - Andre-Norton-Books.com
Donated by – Caroline Fike

 Formatted for online viewing by Jay Watts aka: “Lotsawatts” ~ May 2015

Duplication (in whole or parts) of this story for profit of any kind NOT permitted.