Rusted Armor

By Andre Norton and Caroline Fike

Chapter Five

The Chronicle Continues

Day four found me sore and weary, in desperate need of food. The journey bread was gone and the cost of engaging my Gift to destroy the bladder beasts, saying naught of the leeches feasting on my blood, had brought me very near the end of my strength. I must use cunning to locate nourishment, else there would be no day five for me; of this I was certain.

A scrap of something Soorta had said about the Eye came to me. Had she not prophesied I would be able to “look off” dangerous beasts? What if—I might not simply stop a threatening animal, but actually turn the skill upon one, freezing it in place to be caught and slain for food? She had made no mention of such a possibility, but perhaps—

I found a hiding place in the undergrowth near a stream bank, where it pooled beside the gently sloping verge. Surely in time an animal might come for water, or to fish for its dinner. Moments dragged into hours and the heat of the day gave way to a cooling breeze from the northwest. The dense brush in which I crouched, began to cast long shadows. Soon— Ah—there it was! A small bristly creature, like to the wild pigs I had seen in the wilderness outside Stamglen—but somehow different—waddled to the water’s edge and thrust its snout into the shallows.

Trembling, lest any movement should startle the animal I eased along the slope with painful slowness until down wind but close enough for the creature to see my Eye. I pursed my lips and chirruped like a waterfowl I knew. The pig lifted its head to stare in my direction—just as I hoped! Cautiously lowering myself to all fours, on a level with my prey, I stared. The animal must have had poor eyesight, for it did not seem to react. Closer, closer—now! Catching sight of me, the pig huffed and tossed its head, but too late. I had it!

With my green Eye seeming to vibrate in its socket, there came an almost physical click as my gaze locked into the pig’s. I concentrated fiercely on binding it in place. The animal stood immobile as I inched toward it. Almost, I lost the contact when the thought struck me that I had no weapon to slay the beast. Would I be able to twist its head, breaking its neck? I felt for the cord at my belt. It might at least back up the hold I maintained with the green gaze, long enough to reach for its jaw.

In the end, I did not need the cord, for the look from my Emerald Eye had sent it into a deep sleep-like state. It was no trouble to grasp its head and swiftly snap its neck, but the bleeding and butchering were another matter. It was an agonizingly slow and messy affair, using some sharp edged stones I found in the streambed, but I managed finally to worry enough meat from the carcass to cook over a small fire I built on the bank. I cared not for any who might see its smoky banner aloft. I must eat!

When at last my hunger was satisfied, there was little left of the day, but an early moonrise invited me to move on. The remains of the pig would most surely draw other beasts that I had no desire to confront. Holding my prospective meal in thrall had further sapped my energy and even the meaty feast would not instantly restore me. Still, I could travel carefully and with measured pace in the uncertain moonlight. Fortunately the stream accompanied my chosen direction and I had no want for water.

Sometime in the night even the moon deserted me and I must needs stop to rest and wait for day. Before I set out again, I discovered some familiar tuberous plants that Owlglass had shown me weeks earlier. These promised to sustain me for a while and by now enough of my strength was returning that I took more interest in the countryside about me. I stuffed as many tubers in my pouch as it would hold and continued my journey.

The stream I had been following disappeared into a fissure, but I soon spied another, more shallow and sluggish. The reason for the slowness of the flow soon became apparent. Its water had to find a way through a series of strangely encrusted bowl-like pools. I realized that the water seemed to be issuing from beneath a rocky formation, a short distance up a low incline.

I knelt to examine the pools more closely, for they were at once both beautiful and frightening. Where the other river’s water had been clear and colorless, this was fraught with color. Vivid reds, deep greens, yellows and swirling mixtures of these and many other colors glinted from the myriad small pools. Each of them was outlined with harshly jagged crusts of something that must certainly have been deposited by the water.

Taking a chance, I dipped the tip of my finger in the water and touched one drop to the end of my tongue. Ugh—briny! Never had I tasted such potent saltiness! There were hints of other things in the flavor that I could not identify, but I was sure that somewhere within the earth from which the water flowed, there were substances being gathered by it to deposit here.

Another thing I noticed as I dabbled my fingers in the colorful basins: the water was so warm as to feel almost hot. Another mystery! As I moved, carefully, lest I slip and suffer serious damage from the sharp edges of the pools, I began to notice tiny creatures under the water, moving almost too slowly for me to be sure they were not part of the bottom. I squatted beside a largish bowl and, closing my ungifted eye, simply watched for a while. Yes—these were alive. They looked, as best I could describe them, like the blossoms of a thistle, save that they moved on their own, contrary to the motion of the water. I bent closer and saw yet more wonder—the tiny creatures seemed to glisten with golden glints.

I carefully reached into the warm water and scooped up one into my palm—again venturing without due caution, but I was entranced by the beauty of these minute water dwellers. I looked even closer and nearly tumbled over. Unless I was sorely mistaken, the glints I had seen were bits of gold! I reached in my pouch for a small stick I had saved for a tool. With this I scraped gently across the creature and indeed found that small flakes of gold came away in my palm.

Placing the animal once more in the water, none the worse for my “harvesting” of its decoration, I emptied the moisture from my cupped hand, holding back the gold with the flattened stick. I began to work the bits as I had once seen a castle cook work butter. Like butter, the substance was soft and readily clumped together.

Was this another “gift” to support me further in my quest? I scarcely knew what to think, but not being too great a fool, I set about harvesting more of the valuable metal against—who knew what? By nightfall I had acquired a respectable number of golden gobbets, which I tucked in the very bottom of my carry pouch.

With aching back from so much stooping and bending over the brine pools, and with hands that shriveled and stung from too much contact with the strange water, I trudged up beyond the rocks from which the stream issued, found a small hollow and curled up to sleep, too tired to eat any of the tubers I had gathered.

Strange dreams troubled my rest, one repeatedly drawing me back into the moment in the wilderness when I had caught sight of the Lady Arin riding to the hunt with the man who had apparently brought ruin to my other self. I had had no waking thought of that time in all the months since meeting Owlglass. I sat up with a knot of cold anger growing deep inside me. Chiding myself, I tried to put away that haunting memory, but only succeeded in dulling it.

Now as I began climbing into higher and more rugged country, dreams were constant nightly visitors, each more intense, more disturbing than the one before. On the second night of dreaming I no longer viewed my enemies but could see the form of a peasant boy wending his way through the forest, a dog at his side. He seemed to bend from time to time to gather something, stuffing it into a bag. As I watched, from where I could not tell, a pair of men in knightly garb approached him. Those men, they look—! Before I could quite make out the faces I awoke and found myself sweating. What was happening to me?

Almost, I dreaded to fall back into sleep, but, as it had been when fascinated by a book of lore from Owlglass’s strange collection, I was compelled to reenter the dream. There was more to learn.

Again the forest scene spread before me, this time the lad and his dog stood trembling as the tall men in hauberk and surcoat had increased in number to five. I could clearly see them now and indeed, they were knights I knew—Sir Koil, Sir Mandred, and three more with whom I had ridden, all part of Sir Lazarous’s following. What had these bold men to do with a pitiful boy scouring the woods for a few sticks to use for firewood? As the dream progressed, I could see expressions of scorn on their faces, mingled with a dark amusement.

I could have cried out in disgust as one of the knights, having questioned the child, delivered a heavy backhand blow that sent the lad sprawling. When the dog would have come to his small master’s aid, a second man seized it by its throat and calmly snapped one of the animal’s forelegs! Words floated to me through the vaporous dreamscape, “…catch you poaching again, sirrah and it will be your leg, nay mayhap even your neck!”

Questions crowded my mind as I once more came awake. Was this a true “seeing”? Had my former comrades truly used a helpless peasant so cruelly? Even if there had been proof of poaching, it was likely naught but a coney. Somehow I knew I had been shown an actual happening. I ill-liked what it revealed. There was much I did not know while I abode in Stamglen. Some I had honored were not worthy of it.

Perhaps, I thought, these dreams have been sent as a message to me. Having put that possibility forth, I suddenly felt a jolt in my deepest being, not unlike the feeling that had come when the green Gaze laid hold of the hunted. Yes, there was really some unfinished business back in Stamglen. Perhaps my miserable degradation was for a purpose far beyond that of my enemy. If I survived the next and likely most challenging ordeal, which I somehow knew lay just ahead, I would return to that place of shame and injustice and—what?

On making the decision to return to Stamglen, I was only slightly surprised to find my sleep once more untroubled. With a strangely lighter heart, I pressed on into the mountains that loomed in my path, however, wishing for some warmer clothing. As I climbed, the cold intensified and before long I had to resort to stuffing moss inside my tunic and woebegone boots. These were sorely bedraggled from the abuse they had taken on my trek and I twisted a length of Owlglass’s leathern cord about my feet to hold the last shreds together.

I wrapped my cloak about me as best I could and ducked my head against the steady onslaught of the bitter wind. I did not need to be schooled in the ways of seamanship to read the promise of the sky. Before many hours had passed, I would face yet another test: snow!

Still scrambling up the ancient remnant of a path, I barely had time to seek shelter when the storm descended with almost judgmental fury upon the mountain. I held a corner of my cloak up to shield my face from the slashing wind and so, nearly missed the mouth of a low cave that yawned some yards from the trail. It was partly hidden by a rock fall, but I was in no position to pass by its promise of refuge.

I sniffed the musky air inside as I wriggled into the opening. Some animal had denned here, not too long ago. If it returned—? A fire—I needed one quickly, not just to ward off unwelcome visitors, but to warm my near frozen hands and feet. My heart leaped when I discovered, not just litter for a beast’s nest, but some sticks of wood.

It took far too long to get a blaze going: my hands trembled so, but, oh, how welcome was the heat of it! I drew as close as I dared and all but embraced the flames. Outside my hiding place the winds shrieked with the voices of a thousand souls in torment, but inside I hunkered down, chewed on tubers and soon drifted into a dreamless sleep, warm for the first time in many hours.

Fully two days the wind and snow lashed the mountaintop. My water supply having run out the first night of my taking shelter, I resorted to using snow to quench my thirst. All that remained of a large store of brush and branches from the back of my cave was a few embers when the silence announced the passing of the storm. I almost felt regret as I pushed my way through the drift that had closed me in.

The glare of the white world was so great that I cringed. Ducking back into the cave, I found a partially burned stick and used it to blacken my cheeks. It would provide a small measure of relief from the painful brightness that struck me from all sides.

The air was cold, but the sun and absence of wind served to make my morning climb not too unpleasant. Clouds having spent themselves and flown on the wind, I could see clearly the lands surrounding my lofty vantage point. My enjoyment of the scene below nearly proved to be my undoing. So intent was I on the distant beauty, I failed to notice a subtle change in the atmosphere.

A sudden dense fog seemed to roll down from the peak above me, as though someone had released a giant tapestry and let it unroll from its hangings. At the same moment I felt a chill, entirely unrelated to weather. I suddenly realized this was the chill of foul magic! A pain of such intensity knifed through my Gifted Eye that I dropped to my knees in the snow, almost retching. I wanted nothing more than to curl up and let the cold have its way—finish me!

No—it would NOT end this way. Before me, somewhere curtained by that bank of mist lay my final test. I could not give up now! I felt inside my pouch for Soorta’s philter. Grasping the stopper in my teeth, for my hands were too numb to hold it securely, I jerked it lose and spat it away. I tilted the bottle and drank all that remained. Its contents slid down my throat in a fiery gulp and seemed to ignite something deep within me.

There! I could see a bit better now, though not so clearly as I would have wished. Still, my vision was sharp enough to make out a shadow in the fog. Something very, very large was moving slowly down a long slope toward me. I could hear a crunching as if a great weight was steadily breaking through the icy crust. An odd flickering of blue lightning began to dance across the space between me and the approaching form, bringing a sharp response from my Emerald Eye.

Suddenly, I remembered the effect of the Dhroghii’s stone and snatched it from my pouch. I didn’t even get it to my temple before a beam of intense green fire lanced from my Eye, to bounce off the stone and slice through the fog. There came a hissing as if someone had poured cold water on a very hot rock. The mist curled away in all directions from the beam of light and I saw at last my opponent.

Standing on great trunks of legs, it or’ topped me by nearly twice my height. The blue lightning was dancing about the beast’s body, which seemed to be covered with layers of blue ice, yet not the unyielding hard ice known to me, but such as was supple and moved like rippling muscle. There was no feature in the face of the thing, save for two great black eyes centered on me.

All this I noted in the space of a moment, for the creature was now beginning to move much faster. It dropped from its two-legged stance to four, lowered its head, from which I could see grew an immense jagged ice horn. It was to this horn that the blue flickering seemed to gather and before I could think of defense, the blue fire shot out toward me, true as any arrow.

Unbidden, my hand and Eye met the attack, green fire smashing into blue. The resulting blast sent out waves of heat and force that staggered me backward, but did not seem to affect the beast—at first. Then I realized that, though the creature seemed not to notice the force, the heat that accompanied it had begun its work.

The beast shuddered and seemed to shrink, only slightly. I realized that, if indeed this was a creature of ice, my only hope of victory lay in making things far too hot for it to survive, or tolerate. I would settle for just making it uncomfortable enough to leave!

Another thought: along with the gold I had collected from the brine creatures, I had gathered some of the salt encrustations. Salt and ice are unfriend! I reached again into my pouch and came out with a fist full of the salt crystals. Rubbing them with the Dhroghii’s rainbow pebble for good measure, I hurled them at the ice beast, which was now far too close for my peace of mind.

I danced back as a set of icy claws swung toward my gut. Backing for room to maneuver, I swung my Green Gaze upon my opponent. Where the salt crystals had fallen on its body, the beam from my eye seemed to ignite them, sending the creature into a twisting, howling frenzy. It was no longer interested in me, for great holes were opening in its blue hide. Like the many-colored brine pools, I saw the ice beast turn from a blue-coated menace to a melting mound that trickled away, as it slowly was consumed, leaving puddles of red, yellow, rust, and green.

Strangely, as the creature disappeared, so did the snow. In place of a wilderness of white in the cleft of the mountain was a high meadow, riotously carpeted with flowers. As I gazed entranced, I realized that at the far end of the meadow stood a low stone arch. Once more the compulsion, that had driven me these many days, laid hold on me and I could only seek to pass through that arch.

It opened on a stone flagged circle, in which stood a low column. As I walked slowly to the center of the circle, I could see that a niche had been carved in the column. Nested in the niche lay a finely wrought silver headpiece. It consisted of a thin circular band with strange writing upon it, such as I had never seen. Inset into the band at center front and back was a second band that was arched in form. As I lifted it from its resting place, there came into my mind a command, so sharp that it might have been spoken aloud, “Put it on!”

Obeying an order that brooked no opposing, I set the piece upon my brow and found nothing amazing in the fact that it fit me as though crafted for my head. As the silver band settled in place, I was possessed with a knowledge, never more sure, that I had passed my ordeals and come fully into the realization of my Gift. As I turned to look back up toward the arch, I realized that I was no longer alone.

A faint tingle surged from the headpiece through my skull and a voice, this time audible, addressed me. “Well done, Hart! You are a worthy successor to the Line of Tok.”

I whirled around, but could see no one. Then I closed my ungifted eye and looked carefully at the stone arch. Just within its shadow was a form, not quite solid, but nonetheless that of a man.

“Yes, Hart, my son. It is I, Tok, Mage of Tchurk.” The figure appeared that of a tall man, garbed in a flowing robe of green and holding a tall staff.

I held my peace. What could I say to a specter of my forebear, dead these many hundreds of years? Cold beads of sweat formed on my forehead and trickled down my neck.

“There lies a task ahead for you. Much evil has been done and still spreads unchecked in the land of your childhood. You are not the only one who has suffered because of your enemy. You know not the half of his deeds. He must be brought to answer for his crimes. You have now that which will enable you to take on this task. The Emerald Eye will serve you well, but you must hide it until the time is ripe. Besides that, you possess lesser Gifts, each to serve you in days to come. Last of all, the Cap of Knowledge has come willingly to you. Next to the Eye it is the most valuable of your Gifts. Wear it ever and use it well—” The last words faded as did the form under the arch.

“But—” Suddenly I found my tongue and when I would have poured out a flood of questions, it was too late; my ghostly forebear had returned whence he had come.

 

 

 

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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.