Rusted Armor

By Andre Norton and Caroline Fike

Chapter Three

Daylight waged a slow battle with the enfolding mists and eventually revealed a steep sided vale in which many small hillocks thrust up their rugged tops above the clinging whiteness. Hart could see little besides these knobs that almost seemed to be floating in a blanket of softly carded wool. After a hasty breakfast of journey cake and water from a nearby stream, he and his new master broke camp and plunged into the now thinning mist.

Softstep was nowhere to be seen, perhaps seeking his own morning meal. As the sunlight burned off the final wisps, strange birdcalls wafted from the tops of slender trees that filled the gaps between the hills. These were draped with something like a cross between a moss and a vine. Long feathery strands hung near to the reach of a tall man and were the color of the earliest green of springtime, though it was now nigh to the harvest season.

Owlglass moved ahead with the assurance of one familiar with his path and Hart could only follow, all the while gazing around him. He nearly stumbled into the hermit’s back when his companion stopped abruptly.

“This is where we go to ground, lad.” The old man stepped into a low opening formed by two great stones that had long ago tilted their tops together beside one of the hillocks to mark the entrance of a hollow in the mound.

The flesh on Hart’s neck and scalp crawled as he recognized what this was. “This is a barrow!” Owlglass merely chuckled and lighting his taper, moved into the darkness.

The new trail began to wind downward until Hart could hear but not see a gurgling stream nearby. Finally the scent of smoke and a soft glow signaled the end of their trek. In a large chamber deep underground huddled a tiny hut from which a curl of smoke spiraled upward to a distant crevice in the rock overhead.

A voice rattling not unlike the sound of dry reeds in a windstorm greeted them. “All hail, Owlglass, what brings you to the Crone?”

“A weighty purpose, old dame.” The hermit responded, “I bring someone who seeks knowledge.”

A tiny bent figure emerged from the hut, to lean upon a gnarled staff and stare at them. She was scarcely taller than Hart’s waist. Nearly bald, she bore only scanty strands of white hair and her face was seamed by so many wrinkles that it was difficult at first even to see her eyes.

As the two men drew closer to her, she turned to beckon them on into the hut. Hart ducked under the low lintel of the doorway to stand amazed. He had expected a rude space with few comforts. Instead he entered a room that would have satisfied a noble lady. All furniture was small, yes, but the table and chair beside it were finely carved. There were also an ornate chest and a tiny curtained bed, a miniature of one he had seen in Lord Stormund’s castle.

What was more, the room was well lit with candles and a hearty fire burned on a stone hearth. The young man sensed Owlglass’s amusement.

“Surprised, aren’t you?”

“You might say that,” Hart managed to reply.

The hermit bowed deeply to the crone as if to address a noblewoman of many quarterings. “This be Hart, once in service to the Lord of Stamglen. He has a question for you.”

The tiny woman gestured for Hart to step closer. He stooped low to face her eye to eye, not being quite sure how to begin. Getting a full look at his face, she uttered a high-pitched screech that fell somewhere between laughter and a cry of unexpected anguish.

So astounded in turn was Hart that he tumbled backward to be seated directly on the floor. Owlglass roared his amusement, joined by the old woman and finally by Hart himself, releasing the tension that had been building in him from the moment of entering the barrow.

“So, young man, you want the Crone of Kolroven to reveal to you the truth of your ‘Emerald Eye’”. She came straight to the point!

“Y—yes, m’lady. I know so little. The need for discovery burns in me.”

“Well it may burn you, youngling. We will see if you are equal to it. What know you of a single green eye, if anything?”

“I have found only the words ‘Tok of the Emerald Eye, …age of Tchurk…’ scribed in a volume of curiosities in Owlglass’s library.”

The old woman drew up a low stool, perched on it and reached out to touch Hart’s forehead with her wizened hand. “Yes, yes, there is a gift here, but as yet un-realized. When came it to you?”

“I discovered it scarcely a fortnight ago.” Hart remained seated on the floor as Owlglass made himself comfortable on the room’s only chair.

The crone looked toward the hermit, a quizzical expression on her craggy features. He nodded wordlessly, as if understanding perfectly some question she did not utter aloud. Her wisps of white hair fluttered as she jerked her head and then spoke.

“Yes, there was a mage of Tchurk, one Tok by name, who, in time of great danger to his people, was granted the gift of the Emerald Eye. So far in the past it was that few living but I even know of such a place, man or the whole of the tale. The gift was great but costly. With it he was possessed of a natural mind shielding that guarded him against any probe or attack. What was more, with it he could instantly recognize deception of any sort, conspiracy, illusion or spoken lie. He could ‘see’ falsehood as an aura about the author of it, though it did not follow that he knew the truth beneath. The gift further provided him a weapon: he could silence an enemy’s lie with a single meeting of eyes, to the point of choking the liar on his own words.”

“A very useful skill, I’d say.” Owlglass commented with a twist of lip.

“Indeed.” The crone turned to prod the coals of her fire and add some wood. “But, that was not all. The ‘Emerald Eye’ gave him the power to ‘look off’ wild beasts. When fixed with that green stare, they would turn and run.”

At this Owlglass gave a start. It was the first time Hart had seen him so surprised. Could the hermit possess a measure of the same gift?

Seeming not to notice, the old woman continued, “The final use of the gift enabled the mage to read hidden meanings, such as coded writings, secret details in maps and diagrams.”

Hart’s eyes must have grown very round with awe at these revelations, for the crone leaned close to him and fixed him with a long stare. Finally she added, “Such a gift comes not without cost, especially when wielded as a weapon. As in all magical arts, and this is true magic of the inner ways, the drain of the user’s strength is great. Furthermore, you may never lay hand to a weapon of steel, once you have entered into the responsibilities of this gift. To do so would mean total downfall. But, that is not the half. To come into the full realization of the gift and to make it yours, you must undergo a series of ordeals as did your forbear. Yes, by the evidence of your eye, you are a direct descendant of Tok, Mage of Tchurk.”

“Then why has no one in my family ever evidenced the gift until now?” The question had been troubling Hart as he listened.

“Two reasons: one, the gift only appears in one generation in ten, and two, even then it comes only for defense against some great evil. Often it appears after great personal loss when the receiver’s life has been completely altered.”

Hart swallowed, staring into the flickering fire as he digested that answer. Again he turned to the small withered woman. “I am no mage by training; only a man learned in war. If steel is not my safeguard, then I am as a child again, weaponless and open to attack. Must I now turn my back on the only life I have known?”

The crone raised her hand and before he could move, she tapped his cheek just below the green eye. “There is no choice left to you, but to follow the path Tok set so long ago. To do it willingly is best, but do it, you will!”

Hart jerked back from her touch. The woman looked to Owlglass. “Well, hermit, what think you? Is this youngling equal to what he must do?”

“Surely with the gift comes a measure of enabling.” The hermit gazed now at Hart as if he had given a battle order he knew the youth would carry out in victory.

In return the young man found himself strangely warmed by the older man’s show of confidence. He realized then with a new hollow feeling that no one had ever really cared about him in this way. Always in the past he was reckoned by his small successes or failures, not his inner needs. Owlglass clearly understood his bewilderment and the challenge which the young man faced, at the same time showing belief in Hart’s inner strength.

Yes, he would go through the ordeals and if he came out victorious it would be in large measure because of Owlglass’s support.

The day was already well spent and now the crone directed the men to search outside for certain herbs that would be needed to prepare Hart for his ordeal. As they wound about the hillocks in the Vale of Kolroven, Softstep joined them carrying a fat hare, which he dropped at the hermit’s feet.

“Ah, supper!” Owlglass thanked the silent beast, but did not pet him as one would a dog. One did not treat the forest king with such familiarity, yet the great head brushed against the hermit’s palm.

As they returned, the animal refused to enter the barrow with them, taking up a place of watching just outside the entrance, content to wait for his companion’s return. There he lay licking his huge paws as if to say, “I have done my duty, now you be about yours.”

Returning to the crone’s fireside Owlglass presented her with the fresh dressed hare for the evening’s meal while Hart dropped the bundle of newly harvested herbs. She inspected the finds and clucked with pleasure as she set about the preparations. The young man turned to his mentor. “I have one more question, one that has been nagging me since we came here.”

“Mayhap I know what it is.” Owlglass spoke before Hart could form the question. “You are curious about all this.” He gestured at the room about them.

“Tell me, who is this bit of a woman, to possess things as splendid as might a castle dweller?”

Glancing toward the crone, who winked at him, Owlglass launched into an answer. “Many, many years ago a lady of high rank bore a girl child, one who never grew past half the normal size of others. To the family, who were superstitious, resting greatly on omens and fears, such a child was cursed.”

“Surely just being small is no cause to believe a curse is laid on.” Hart watching the tiny woman in her preparation of the meal, felt a pang of sympathy.

“To make matters more difficult, the child began to give evidence of strange abilities frightening her people. She could ‘see’ things beforehand—an animal’s death or an armsman’s injury, and such like. Even worse, she begged to be taught her letters and numbers. Then it was unseemly for a girl to seek such learning. She should be well satisfied with the skills of the lady’s chamber, to say nothing of the bedchamber.”

“Did she get her way?”

“After a time she found an old monk who was willing to teach her. Before long the girl was sneaking into the library of the abbey on her father’s land and devouring the books there—even as you found worth the reading, the books of my collection. From a traveling herbalist she gained knowledge in healing, showing uncanny skill that set folk to whispering.”

“How came she here?”

“A strange sickness broke out in the castle and village where she lived. She had warned of it’s coming, so when the abbot called a council to determine the ‘cause’ of the evil that had befallen, the finger of blame was swiftly pointed at her.”

“But surely she was not guilty. If they had listened to her, perhaps the sickness could have been avoided.” Hart said almost angrily.

“Just so. But when folk are stirred up with fear and the loss of loved ones, all they care is to find someone to accuse.” Owlglass’s face took on a grim cast.

Hart felt a chill pass over him. How well he understood that!

“Her own family thrust her out of the castle and the villagers drove the girl into the wild lands, much as you were driven out of Stamglen, lad. How she was able to survive is another story, but suffice it to say she did and by mercy came to this hidden place, here to make a home for herself these many years.” The hermit smiled and laid a hand on Hart’s shoulder.

“And you chanced upon this lair on one of your treks, no doubt.” The young man grinned back.

“Aye, and it was a fine day when I did. I will ever be thankful for the chance of meeting the Crone of Kolroven.” At that point they were summoned to the more pressing matter of supper, which the lady in question handed to them in great steaming bowls.

“One thing more,” Hart added brashly, “how did you find these noble things here in the wilderness, lady?” He looked around at the small but fine furnishings.

“That was the work of your friend here,” she replied. “He managed to pack them in piece by piece over a period of months, seeing I had so little to comfort my solitary life then.”

“It would seem that there is no end of surprises when dealing with you, Owlglass!” Hart laughed as he set to with his bowl of stew.

Long before daylight had touched the hidden vale, the crone, whose name, Hart had learned was Soorta, led the two men deep into the nether reaches of the barrow that sheltered her cottage. Bearing a smoky brand, she now thrust it toward a jagged opening in the floor, half hidden by another tilted slab of stone. “This, Youngling, is the entrance to the Labyrinth of Lonegar. You must descend to the bottom of this shaft where you will find the beginning of a track. Follow that and face what lies before you, and do not stray or your life is forfeit. You will face challenges that must be met by might, by mind and by magic.”

Hart stood still “Magic! I—I know none of that!” He had been warned of old against dabbling in the unknown.

“Be not so hasty, lad. There are magics and magics. Not all are of the Dark!” Soorta responded with such anger that for a moment he forgot his uneasiness.

“But, how—” He felt as if he were venturing into a vast chasm. Indeed, perhaps that was exactly what he was about to do.

“I have prepared a potion that will aid you. It has not the power to fully awaken your gift, but it will serve to open to you a Door—passing through that, you will find things become more clear as you journey.” The crone’s answer was small comfort. So much remained unknown.

Hart strove to steady his hand as he took a small flask stoppered with a strangely luminous carved stone.

“Take now but a single swallow,” Soorta cautioned. “You must hoard the supply as long as you may. Use it only in extremity. The effect will sharpen the senses you must have to survive, but there is little enough to last for your journey.”

“That’s comforting.” Hart couldn’t resist that answer.

Owlglass hooted, “You’ll do, youngling! Feistiness serves when skill is wanting.”

Pulling the amber colored stopper from the flask, the young man dared a sip and nearly dropped the bottle. The liquid was at once fiery and yet sent a chill through his mouth and throat, even seeming to pass like a vapor up the passages to his ears. Strangely he noticed instantly that his natural senses were far sharper than ever in his experience. The murky darkness of the barrow chamber took on an eerie detail. Sounds and smells, hitherto unnoticed, crowded upon him.

Hart’s companions stood patiently beside him as though waiting for him to come to terms with these new sensations. Owlglass nodded, reached into his pouch and brought out a tightly coiled cord, handing it to the young man. “You will have a need for this. It is very strong, treated against any damp you are like to encounter below.”

Hart mumbled thanks, almost overwhelmed at the flood of sensation reaching him through eye, ear, nose, touch and especially taste. He turned to the crone, “How will I know what I am to do?” Was there no map, no instruction to guide him?

“You will know when the time is proper. The path you follow is not a random one. There is a greater purpose. Remember the ‘Emerald Eye’ is a gift, and one you must prove worthy of receiving.” Soorta’s voice had taken on a gentleness that strangely quieted Hart’s growing anxiety. Looking first at Owlglass and then to the tiny woman, Hart realized that he must trust these two, and, yes, his own destiny. What else could he do? He had come too far now to turn back. There grew in him another sense, one which he only briefly tasted, a tugging, thrilling awareness in the very fiber of his being.

“Enough!” With an abrupt shove, the crone urged the young man toward the gap in the floor. He smiled briefly, grasped his short staff, hitched his cloak tightly about him, thrusting the coiled cord through his belt, and lowered himself into the opening.

The journey had begun in earnest.

 

 

 

Prev.          Contents          Next

 

"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.