Rusted Armor

By Andre Norton and Caroline Fike

Chapter Six

Hart remained in the lofty stone circle for many minutes, pondering the words of the spectral Tok. His emotions surged and settled more than once as he continued to stare at the now empty stone arch. Finally, he looked about for a way off the mountain that would not require him to retrace his journey. He almost missed what he sought, until, following the circle of stones the full way round, he spotted an ancient and worn stair spiraling down from the far side.

Cracked and crumbling in places from weather and age, the stone steps seemed to beckon him. Hitching up his belt and settling the circlet on his head for luck, he began to descend, staff clutched tightly in his right hand.

Edging cautiously downward for what seemed a lifetime, Hart reached a level place beside the stair and gratefully collapsed upon its knobby surface. He gazed around, still alert, for, though his ordeal here was accomplished, common dangers lurked in this wild country too. Not all fearsome things sprung from magic.

Satisfied that he was quite alone and not in immediate peril, he stretched out aching legs and closed his eyes, though he did not allow himself to fall asleep. Hart was not that secure. Once more turmoil filled his mind. How could he approach Stamglen? What guise might he use and how could he get close enough to Lazarous to learn more about him? What of the Lady Arin? Even to think of those names further stirred the coals of anger within him.

Shaking his head to clear it, he rose to continue down the mountain. First it would be best to seek Soorta’s counsel. All her prophecies had proven true. Surely she was a seer of power and wisdom. Wryly Hart admitted to himself that he needed wisdom—how to manage the Power he now possessed, being most pressing. It would not do to enter a battle without weapon knowledge.

As he neared the foot of the mountain, the weary man discovered a well-traveled path, appearing to be made by the feet of animals, not man. He turned again to follow this and before long began to recognize territory explored with Owlglass. Taking a bearing on a familiar rock formation, he turned toward the distant hills and the pass, which led to the hidden entrance of the Vale of Kolroven.

When at length the Hart entered the barrow and hailed the ancient crone, he was greatly changed from the young man who had set out a fortnight before. Had she not been expecting such an alteration, even the old seeress would have been hard put to recognize him. Where he had been fit and well muscled, now he was lean to the point of gauntness. Hair and beard, once sooty black, bore wide streaks of silver and, in place of the ruddy bloom of healthy youth, lay a ghostly pallor.

But the most striking change visible to Soorta’s other “sight” was that which rested in Hart’s soul, for he returned, possessed of a serene and almost deadly calm. She sensed in him no less determination for the quest that bore heavily on his mind, but now he had learned a priceless skill—not magic, nor cunning, but patience. Hart the Hunted was now ready to become the Hunter. It was time to return to Stamglen.

Long into the night the two, so unlike, yet so bound in trust and understanding, sat before Soorta’s cozy fire, sipping one of her herbal restoratives while Hart recounted his adventures. Sometime, not long into his telling, they were joined by a third. Owlglass entered quietly and settled beside Hart who paused long enough to take the hermit’s hand in a firm grasp. The look the younger man gave him conveyed wordless thanks.

“Well, don’t stop now, lad,” prompted the old man. “The tale’s a-coolin’.”

Taking up the thread of his story, Hart shared it all with his only friends, wonder edging the tone of his voice. Soorta nodded and clucked as, one by one, he laid out the “gifts” he had received along the way.

“Prizes indeed, youngling. I could tell my own tale of the Dhroghii, but not tonight. Guard well their gift. It will yet serve you greatly.”

“Yes, lady. Be sure I will ever hold close all that I have received, but will you not tell me more? I have so much to learn.” Hart rested his head in his hands for a moment, suddenly overcome with weariness.

“Aye, that I will, but now you must rest. You have need of more than just restoration of your physical strength. Have you not seen your reflection since you left the mountain?”

“I—no!” Hart seemed taken aback at her question.

“Good thing! You might not like what you see.” Owlglass quipped.

Soorta gave the hermit a dark look and fetched a blanket from her carved chest. Wrapping himself gratefully in it, Hart curled up before the fire, asleep in an instant.

Soorta was bustling about a small pot that hung on a hook over her fireplace. Sniffing, she nodded in satisfaction and, grasping its handle with a bit of sheepskin to protect against the heat, she placed it on a roundel of hard clay on her low table. Sitting up and groaning at the ache and stiffness in his back, Hart spoke.

“From the feel of my bones, I have slept over long. What hour is it?”

“It lacks but one hour ‘til sunrise, lad. You have slept away near a day and a half.”

The crone reached for a carven wood spoon and dipped it into the pot, drawing out a hand-sized piece of limp leather. This she placed atop a stone that lay nearby. Taking a small wooden mallet she began tapping the leather as she stretched it over the smooth roundness of the stone. When the leather scrap was molded to the shape of the stone, she tucked under one end of it and set the whole aside to dry.

Catching the puzzled expression on Hart’s face, the tiny woman smiled. “It’s for you, youngling. You will “see” when I finish it.” Her emphasis of the word “see” sent small shivers down his back. Clearly the crone would say no more and he had to wait as usual for further explanation.

Stamping his feet to shed the clinging earth, Owlglass entered with a brace of meadow fowl and a huge grin. “Well, I see you have finally returned to the land of the waking. Slept well, son?”

“Too well, Owlglass. I feel as if I had met with a stone-spell caster, not quite strong enough to turn me to rock, but sufficient to transform my muscles to gristle.” Hart stretched and they could hear the popping of his tendons, confirming his words.

“Food is what you need most, both of you.” Soorta gestured to the bowls steaming on the table. “Then we will form a plan.”

Full, almost to the point of discomfort, Hart leaned back to regard his companions. The time for resting and waiting was over. Now he would gain a clearer understanding of his next task.

Taking the partially dry piece of leather from its form-stone, Soorta set about cutting narrow slits across its rounded surface with a tiny silver blade. “There is but one way for you to pass unnoticed among the folk of Stamglen. That Emerald Eye must not be seen!”

Hart looked startled, then nodded. “Yes, lady, you are right. It would at the very least cause talk and questions, which I could not answer truthfully and hope to remain safe.”

“This should serve to hide your Gift and perform one other task.” Taking a length of fine cord, the wizened woman threaded two pieces through holes she had punched in the ends of the leather. “The Dhroghii’s gift—bring it out.”

Grown accustomed to the crone’s abrupt manner, Hart reached into his pouch and produced the small stone, glinting softly with many hues in the light of the fire. It fit easily in the palm of his hand, rounded and somewhat flat. He offered it to Soorta.

“No! I must not touch it, for it is bound to you only. Here, slip it into this fold.” She indicated a tiny pocket inside the leather piece. “Now, tie this over your gifted Eye and tell me what you see.”

Obeying her, Hart felt a thrill of anticipation course through him as he tied the leather cord across his cheek, however the patch lay too far from his Eye to fit properly.

Soorta pulled a face and peered closely at his face. “Ah, I have it!” She seized a handful of his beard. “This bush must go, for it prevents the shield from lying smoothly in place.

“My beard?” Hart’s hand almost caressed the growth that had so changed his visage. If truth were told, he was proud of the fierce look of it. “But this helps to hide my identity.”

“Which be the lesser evil, lad? Chancing recognition by your enemy, or hiding your gifted eye?” The crone’s penetrating gaze was far from comforting.

“But, lady, I cannot shave; only steel will hold edge sharp enough for that.” He knew he sounded not unlike a small boy trying to wheedle himself out of a dreaded task.

“Think you that I do not have an answer for such a problem?” Soorta rummaged in a small cupboard and with a grunt of satisfaction drew forth a dark, fist-sized box carved from glistening wood. “You will rub some of this on your chin once each seven-day. It will remove and control the growth of hair on that stubborn chin of yours.”

“Now?” Hart looked uncertainly at the contents of the box. It could have been mud, for all he could tell, but it carried a potent scent that made his nose tingle. “But, my beard is long, surely it will not remove so much hair.”

“That’s where I come in, youngling.” Owlglass advanced toward Hart with a gleam of amusement. “Don’t worry, I will crop that brush to size, so the stuff can work, and you will not suffer the touch of my steel.”

Hart squeezed both eyes shut and submitted stoically to the denuding of his face. What must be done, must be endured.

When at length he was clean of face once more, the leather patch fit snugly in its intended place and Hart found that, instead of being sightless in the covered Eye, he could see with such sharpness that even the shadowy corners of Soorta’s hut held no secrets from his gaze. “How?”

“The Eye needs but a small chance to work its power. These slits in the leather eye patch, though too small to be noticed from without, are quite enough to serve you. What is more, the Dhroghii stone will ever work to enhance and strengthen your Gift, especially as you are not tutored in its uses.” The tiny woman bore a self-satisfied expression. Justly so, thought Hart.

“One thing more,” the seeress continued, “You must use the salve as I instructed. When your supply runs low, I will know, for I shall watch over you with the Pool of Knowing. I will send Owlglass with a fresh supply to meet you where the Kolroven track meets the Gamlin Road. There is an ancient tree there; hide in its branches and watch for his coming.”

“What is the Pool of Knowing?” Hart responded.

“A place of ‘Seeing’,” was all that the crone would say.

“Here is a more pressing question:” Owlglass seemed bent on a different subject. “How can you rejoin the community of the Manor of Stamglen?”

“There need be no fear of Hart being recognized as the broken knight.” Soorta observed. “Youngling, you are so changed, that what you were a fortnight past is no longer obvious, let alone how you appeared when in service to Lord Stormund.”

“Aye, and the Eye will likely protect you from any magical probe.” Owlglass tugged thoughtfully at his beard and turned to the crone. “But what will explain his presence? Villagers are that suspicious of strangers. He must have a believable story, one that will provide safe conduct to join Stamglen once more, not as a noble, but as a common man.”

“I think I might have a way.” Hart interjected. “I was lessoned in letters and numbers by Father Corbin. It would be no lie for me to say that I am a Church trained scrivener.”

“Yes! That has a likely chance of winning you acceptance, but you must take great care,” Soorta cautioned. “Perhaps I should consult the Pool. Mayhap we can find a clue there to aid you.” Rising, she motioned the two men to follow, Owlglass shaking his head slightly as he glanced at Hart.

Turning in a direction opposite the way to the Labyrinth, the Crone of Kolroven led them to a great stone, where a tiny spring trickled, too slow to disturb the calm water pooled in a bowl carved into the rock’s surface.

As Soorta passed her tiny claw-like hand over the pool, a fine mist curled up to obscure it. Bending her head closer to the glassy surface, she intoned words in a language quite unknown to Hart and Owlglass. As the mist slowly parted, Hart could see figures moving like miniature mummers before his astonished gaze.

The crone beckoned him to lean nearer and stepped back to give way. What he saw seemed to grip him in a sort of trance. He viewed, in rapid succession, images of a great frothing boar’s mouth, a festive banquet, a tiny cubicle where someone bent over a great book, and, lastly, the eerie flickering of nightmare images upon the wall of what could only be a dungeon.

More confused than ever, Hart lifted his head at last and looked at Soorta. “Seeress, tell me, what means it all?” He swayed in place, feeling as if a great chasm was opening at his feet.

“I ‘see’, yes, but it is not always given me to interpret. This only may I tell you. The task that lies before you is in a way a far greater challenge than any you faced in your ordeal. However, within you dwells the skill and strength to fulfill your destiny. Of that I am sure.”

Small comfort, Hart thought, but did not voice his opinion. Instead he turned to Owlglass and questioned, “Do you travel with me, hermit?”

“Nay, lad. There are those in Stamglen who know me all too well. To have me as your companion would name you unfriend there. You must go alone.” A look of deep sorrow passed over the old man’s face, such as Hart had never seen in all the months spent with the hermit.

“Very well, if I must go alone, go, I will.” The young man spun about and strode back to the crone’s hut, his determination plain to read.

“You’ll do,” muttered Owlglass to himself, no one to hear him but Soorta, who nodded her agreement.

The rest of the day was spent in final preparations for Hart’s departure. He would need food for the journey, fresh clothing including a hooded cloak to cover the headpiece and much of his face, boots and—a weapon? Dared he venture forth without the arms he had been trained to use? Surely the Eye was not to be employed at every threat! At this thought his hand sought the hilt of the sword he no longer carried.

Owlglass produced one answer to this quandary—a short bow and arrows tipped with razor sharp scales of some huge fish. No forbidden iron here. Next Soorta presented the young man with a small silver knife, tarnished but sharp of edge. At least he could cut his meat!

On the fifth day after his return visit to the Crone of Kolroven, Hart of the Emerald Eye set out on his journey to Stamglen. Gripping his staff to steady his trembling hand, he saluted the pair who stood at the entrance to the ancient barrow. Without a backward glance he turned, looking perhaps more resolute than he felt.

A day’s journey brought him to the well-traveled road that led from Gamlin to Stamglen, passing through Drowsing Wood. As he walked he remembered the tale of how the forest here had got its name. A shiver passed through him, so like that he had felt when, as a small boy, Father Corbin had told it to him.

Once long and long ago, a knight rode out on a quest to prove his courage and skill. His way lay through an unwelcoming wood, but he feared nothing in his youth and inexperience with the ways of the Dark. Watching carefully for footpads or dangerous wild beasts, he neglected to notice the look of the trees about him. The day was warm, so he tilted his helm to allow a bit of air in, but so doing, he blocked his view of what hovered above.

A few days before, a hedge witch had traveled the path on which the knight rode and in a fit of spite against the Lord of the lands thereabout, she had netted the very trees with a sleep spell. As the hapless man jingled his way under the ever-lowering branches, one after another brushed his helm and finally sent tendrils beneath it to catch and hold him fast.

Snatched from his mount, the knight was already unconscious as he dangled from the weaving branches. Soon so ensnared was he, that none passing that way after him saw so much as a glint of his armor or a hint of his form. Thus ended the life and quest of the careless man.

Hart never quite believed the yarn, but now he was not so certain, in spite of hearing such tales only too often. He would have scarcely credited the things that happened to him on his trek from Labyrinth to mountain, had they been told of another. So, there might be some truth behind the foolish knight’s story. It would not hurt to watch in all directions, especially above where the dense branches of the ancient trees intertwined to form a veritable roof over the roadway.

Increasing his pace, Hart continued, pondering once more the strange images that had passed before his gaze in the seeress’s pool. Jolted suddenly from his musings, he heard a piercing cry and a furious huffing and grunting from just ahead. He broke into a run. Someone was in peril!

He rounded a turn in the road to discover just how great was that peril. A lone man was backed against a huge tree, too large to climb and void of low branches to grasp. Fronting him was the biggest boar Hart had ever seen. Its great slashing tusks were working against the upper plates of its jaw, sharpening for the kill. It huffed a challenge again, lowered a long and vicious snout for the charge. With a shout to draw the animal’s attention, Hart sprang between the boar and its prey. Pushing up his eye patch, he loosed the full gaze of the Emerald Eye at the angry beast. Now he would see if its promise held true.

The wild hog gave a furious snort, attempting to toss its head, but the Green Gaze had caught him and he could not so easily shake it off. For a long moment the man and beast were locked in motionless combat. At length with an almost contemptuous blowing, the boar spun to plunge into the dense undergrowth.

“H—how did you do that?” The rescued man stammered after a few breaths.

“Oh, it’s just a matter of showing the beast that I was not afraid of him.” Hart had once more replaced the eye patch and hoped the man would accept his somewhat lame explanation. So, it seemed, he did, being too relieved at escaping certain gory death.

“I am in your debt, man.” The shaken near-victim spoke again. “My name is Raif Attabirch, newly appointed Steward of Lord Stormund’s manor, now of the village of Under Stamglen.” He held out a trembling hand, which Hart grasped and shook, no less relieved himself.

“I am called Hart. It is to that same village I am bound, seeking employ.” This might be just the opening he needed.

“Well, what skills have you, friend Hart?” The steward was rapidly regaining his composure.

“I am Church trained in letters and sums.” Hart replied.

“Hmm, a scrivener.” Attabirch seemed to be in thought for a moment. “I may have just the place for you. Alas, I am bound for Gamlin, or we could company to the village. Nevertheless, take this and present it to the village reeve. He will direct you.” The man took a bit of parchment from his belt pouch and a stick of charred wood, scratching a few words on it before rolling it and handing it to Hart.

“My thanks, Steward!” Hart bowed. “I trust I shall serve you well.”

“No, my thanks go to you. Under Stamglen would have lost its new steward if you had not happened along. Now, I must hasten. I like not the thought of spending a night in this place.”

“I heartily agree! Fair journey, Steward.” Hart turned and resumed his trek, desirous also to be free of Drowsing Wood before day’s end.

 

 

 

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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.