Rusted Armor

By Andre Norton and Caroline Fike

Chapter Four

Now Begins the Chronicle of a Wanderer

Darkness folded around me as I slipped into the mouth of the narrow passage. Even with the effects of Soorta’s philter still on me, I could see no further than the reach of my staff and was soon glad that, on arising, I had thought to exchange my stiff-soled boots for supple leather footwear.

The defile soon dropped sharply, becoming little more than a chimney of stone into which I must wedge myself. While the rock forming the walls was layered like stacks of old books placed carelessly atop one another, edges jutted out just enough to provide finger and toe holds. My nails first dulled, then wore away until I could feel fingertips growing raw in my struggle to maintain a purchase on outcroppings. I dared not think what would be the fate of my soft boots.

Stopping to rest, I gulped dank air. It was cold and thick, with a flavor to it as if I had pricked my tongue to taste blood. Wedging myself against the left side of the funneling passage, I noticed just above my head, a small projection of rock in shape and size much like a man’s fist. It spurred an idea.

I pulled Owlglass’s cord from my belt and let the ends drop into the darkness below, holding the loop made by doubling it in the middle. This I hooked over the outcrop, laid the doubled cord across my right shoulder, passed it under my left arm and through my belt. Thus I could in a measure secure my descent, for now it was necessary to inch my way downward with back against one wall and feet against the opposite.

The stone no longer rasped my fingers, but I had to take care that the cord did not burn flesh as I allowed it to slip slowly through my hands. Progress was agonizingly slow, but in time I felt, rather than saw a change in the walls, so close upon me that it was necessary to draw my knees almost to my chin, fearing that at any moment I might become hopelessly wedged, to end my quest here before it had scarcely begun.

Such thoughts were swept away, when I was suddenly catapulted, like a violently birthed creature, from the now slime-slicked crevice. Owlglass’s cord was all that kept me from sure death on the floor below. Even clinging to the life-saving rope, I was descending far too rapidly, with very little of its length remaining to hold me.

I had knotted one end of the cord and as my burning palms clutched this, the other end of it flew aloft, to release itself from the rock fist far above. It must have twirled about the outcrop for a moment, for my plunge was broken by it just enough. Landing hard on the surface below, I felt my breath explode from me and knew nothing more for a space.

Slowly, with needles dancing before my eyes and playing all through my body, I became aware of my surroundings. Almost fearing the result, I gingerly moved my legs and arms: nothing broken! Oh, but there was pain! Every muscle and bone in me protested, but I soon forgot such complaints as realization grew that I had landed in an eerily glowing chamber, though there was no visible source of that blue-green light.

Pulling myself up with the aid of my short staff, which had also survived my descent, I turned slowly to face a wonder. Before me towered a wall that curved like the soft flank of a hind, glowing and shimmering, seeming almost to undulate. Hesitantly I stumbled toward it, holding out my hands, in my amazement forgetting caution. It was—cold! Ice! Yet it seemed almost alive in its beauty. The light emanating from its depths awoke such a deep longing within me, I would have plunged into it, had it been liquid. I placed my open palms against the alluring surface and there stuck fast!

I don’t know how long I stood there peering into the great ice surface, my hands seeming to sink into the ice, no longer feeling the coldness. In time the common needs of my body drew me to sensibility once more. I reluctantly twisted to jerk sharply from the glowing wall, aware now of a vicious stinging pain in my palms.

Folding my arms across my breast, I thrust my hands under armpits to warm them and still their aching. Pain seemed to creep along my bones and anchor itself like a living fire deeper into my body. I could do no more than hunt a dry spot to collapse and fumble for some of the journey cake in my small pouch. Weariness at last made me simply curl up in a shallow nook of the chamber’s stone wall and sleep, numbing at last the fiery agony within.

I awakened, pain free, to sounds of grating and cracking, together with a strange scurrying all about me. My seeking gaze riveted on the great ice wall and sealed there as if I were at one with its substance. The ice had cloven and was parting to form a jagged cleft. Meanwhile the rustling noises increased and. I realized masses of small creatures hurtled toward the ever-enlarging opening. None of them appeared to pay any attention to me, some even scuttling, two-legged across my feet in their haste to reach what could only be a gate of sorts for them.

Hunched as they were, I could have spanned the back of one with my two hands. Long pelts of grayish-fawn fur covered them and hid any hint of head or limbs. I had only limited time to consider them, though, for now I was compelled helplessly to rise, snatch up staff and pouch and rope, staggering after the fast disappearing creatures into the jagged passage through the ice wall. As I went, I felt shards of ice slicing at my boots while I gritted my teeth against the pain in my feet.

I had gone only a few score paces when the fissure dropped into a glassy chute, through which a torrent of melt water rushed. Like the creatures ahead of me, I plunged feet first into this, allowed now no way to turn back. The torrent bore me like a hapless bit of drift, down the surging, twisting, watery tunnel. Gasping for breath, I was spewed out into the blinding light of the outer world, splashing into a turbulent pool of the coldest water I had ever encountered.

No mean swimmer, I now found my arms and legs refusing to answer me in the fight to keep my head above the swirling water. As if caught in some dark dream, I sunk slowly into the frigid depths, near to surrender when dozens of small white hands appeared, to tug me upward. Had I already entered death’s domain and met with guides to the next world?

But no! When I broached the surface in a spasm of coughing, I realized these were my rescuers, come to pull me to a shore within a deep-cut valley—open to the sky. I was drenched, bruised and bloodied, but alive. Fully spent, I lay, shuddering, not just from the cold, but with the sure knowledge of how close I had come to death once more. Soorta had spoken true when she foresaw my ordeal.

At length I looked up to see who had brought me from the edge of oblivion. Standing in a silent array some paces from me were a growing throng of—not the fur-pelted animals I thought I had seen in the ice cavern, but small pearl-white folk, delicate of feature with large gray eyes and no sign of hair on head or face. Even as I watched, more and more of them emerged from the water, shedding the silky pelts I had seen below. One by one, all came to join their fellows and stand quietly, watching me with unreadable expressions on their milky faces.

As I continued to gaze bemused at this growing company, one of their number stood forth and approached me. Quite obviously a female, she tipped lightly along the pebbly shingle. My attention was thus drawn to her delicate feet that almost seemed to float across the glittering strand. The myriad of small stones rippled with fully a thousand hues and dazzled my eyes.

The tiny woman, seeming to take no thought that she wore no garment other than her pearly skin, spoke at last.

“Hail, He of the Promised Gaze! Long have you been awaited.” Her voice sounded like nothing less than the fluting of many of reed pipes.

I could only stare in speechless amazement; each moment of this journey brought new wonders!

“Your Green Gaze has unlocked our prison and set my people at liberty after many long ages of bondage in the Dark. But there is no time for our tale now. You must hasten on, for much awaits you before you reach your destiny.” The woman stooped and selected one of the glistening pebbles.

“Receive this token of the gratitude of the Dhroghii. You will learn of its use when need arises.” With that she turned and beckoned to her people. As one they lifted the small white hands that had so surely delivered me from drowning. Giving a curious undulating salute and then clearly pointing, they indicated the way I should take.

Swallowing some uneasiness and many questions that rose unbidden, I nodded in return and scrambled once more to my feet to resume my journey. The direction pointed out by the Dhroghii was marked by a faint path that led away from the shining shore to an ever more green and fertile landscape.

Following that trace, I passed through a constantly changing series of growths. Spotty patches of brown and reddish moss gave way to thick waves of spiky grasses, reaching to my knees and making me thankful for the path, small as it was. In time even the track seemed to disappear and I could only guess what should be my direction. Judging by the way I had traveled thus far, I continued northward.

As the daylight faded, I entered curious terrain indeed. The ground beneath my thin boots grew wetter and wetter, at length causing small oozing pools where I had trod. The grasses parted from place to place, revealing the gleam of still water in the lowering gloom. Having no desire to walk this forbidding place in darkness, I looked about for some safe resting spot. Not far from where I stopped stood one lone, twisted tree, long dead from the drowning of its roots, I suspected.

Wading across a narrow stretch of stagnant water, I reached the snag, determined to suppress the revulsion I felt at the stench of the place. Whatever might live here, one could believe was not wholesome and most like wholly unfriend to intruders.

Flipping one end of the hermit’s cord over the highest large branch, I pulled myself up to straddle a bone white remnant of the tree’s limbs. As a precaution against falling in my sleep, I lashed myself to the trunk and settled as best I could for some rest. Vain hope! As darkness spread fully across the great marsh I had glimpsed, as I gained my perch, the very air seemed to breed and bring forth a pestilential horde, bent on taking all my blood.

Fairly suffocating with tiny flyers seeking food, I drew my cloak over my head, warm though it had now become—better being too hot than choking on the pests. If I had thought that leaving my lofty place would deliver me from their attacks, I would have gladly dived into the murk below, but ominous splashings and gruntings warned me off that course of action.

Twice in the hours I sheltered there, I was jarred by some creature using the trunk for a scratching post. I did not care to think how large an animal or just what it might be that could shake the tree so. Dead, it was, but still solidly rooted, and I praised all that was holy for this fact.

Daring to peer out from under my hooding cloak, I could not make out more than a darker patch below, but something off to my right made me tense. Bobbing and jigging, scarcely a hundred paces from my haven, were dozens of strange orbs of yellow light, if light it was. I could put no other description to what I witnessed and was even unsure if I truly saw with physical sight what was there.

I know not what prompted me, but I suddenly thought to close first my blue eye and then my green eye to observe the orbs. With the blue, they were so faint as to almost disappear, but with the green—

I gave such a start that would have tumbled me from my perch, had I not taken care to tie myself there. As clearly as if seen on the brightest of sunny days, I saw! And what I saw—prancing across the surface scum were—I could not put name to the sight. These were no part of the world I knew.

Great ball shaped bodies on long stick legs—too improbably thin to hold such—cavorted, bobbing downward from time to time to open what must be mouths in order to scoop wiggling creatures out of the slime. What sickened me most was the sight of the prey inside the bodies, which resembled over-full bladders. Small things writhed, clearly visible through the skin of the predators. As the writhing slowed and ceased, the meal seemed to burst into a dull yellow glow, causing the bladder beasts to shiver in a kind of obscene pleasure.

As the ball creatures moved much closer, I realized another unsettling fact. With each mouthful, they were growing in girth, some now fully as large as a cow. And what was worse, they seemed suddenly aware of me! One straightened its two stilt-like legs, bringing it almost level with my place on the branch.

I found myself fighting back an insane urge to scream in fear. Convulsively I clutched my few belongings, as though they might give comfort by their ordinary feel. As I did this, my hand came to rest on the small pebble gifted me by the Dhroghii. Nearly dropping it in shock at its reaction to my touch, I tore my gaze from the predator below and saw the stone was beginning to blaze brightly. Unbidden, the hand which held it, rose to place it on my left temple, next to the Emerald Eye.

A silent explosion of green light shot from the stone or my eye, I was unsure which. Piercing the darkness, the beam seared straight through the bladder-like body. Not my ears, but my mind, heard a single screech as the repulsive thing burst, scattering yellow ichor in an ever-widening circle about it. Where the stuff landed on its fellows, each in turn burst also, until, where there had been the feasting creatures, now only wave after wave of their remains spread across the marsh.

Fairly hanging from my safety cord, I found only enough strength to store the pebble once more in my pouch. What was happening? I understood so little, yet the power of the Gift must be coming into control. Not my control, rather it seemed to control me! Could I withstand much more of this? I clamped down hard on my thoughts—they led me on a path I’d rather not tread just then.

In time exhaustion took over again and I slept for a period, to awaken wet through with sweat as the steamy heat of day enveloped me. There was no visible sunlight, but a strange mist covered the swamp. After eating a bit of my fast depleting rations and drinking sparingly from the water skin I had filled from the melt water, I untied the cord, stowed it and slid down the trunk of the lonely sentinel snag.

Trying to avoid the putrid water as much as possible, I hopped from clump to clump of marsh grass, praying fervently that none hid some unpleasant surprise. As I reached a large expanse of water, however, there was nothing for it, but that I must wade through. Hitching my tunic and supply pouch as high as I could, I slogged into the murky water, sounding out the path ahead with my staff.

Congratulating myself that I encountered nothing bigger than a sluggish snake the size of my leg, which fortunately seemed uninterested in me, I pressed on. My staff proved my most valuable tool; with it I barely avoided stepping into a bog trap. I could feel the ooze clutching at the slender rod as it suddenly sunk so deep that my arm followed it into the water. I jerked backward and nearly fell, my heart pounding.

Carefully prodding to the left, I managed to stay on firm ground until I passed the bog spot. I could see a bank rising from the far side of the water now and increased my speed. I wanted nothing more than to be free of this place! At last I dragged myself from the water and crawled to a relatively open space under a tall overhanging tree fern, the largest I had ever seen.

I rested there for a time and must have slept. Foolishly I neglected to check myself when leaving the water and paid dearly for that oversight, for I did not come alone from the swamp. As I awoke in the late afternoon, something was very wrong. Why was I so weak? Surely I had not expended that much effort. Waves of dizziness struck me and I lifted my hands to clutch my spinning head. It was then that I realized the cause.

Hanging from my wrists and arms were leeches, already swollen with a feast of my blood. In panic I stripped off my garments and found many, many more! When I attempted to pull them from my flesh, I found them to be lodged fast. What could I do? Being forbidden the use of iron, I had no knife to cut them. I tried to think, meanwhile the pests had robbed me of more than blood. My mind was skittering away like a fractious colt at breaking time.

I looked about me for something, anything I could use, when my eye lighted on the bottle of philter given me by Soorta. In desperation I snatched it with trembling fingers, fumbled with the stopper and managed to raise it and take a long swallow. A sharp pain surged through me and seemed to pass from me to the leeches. One by one, they quivered, went rigid and dropped off my body. I was aware of a vast relief as I once more lost consciousness.

 

 

 

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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.