Rusted Armor

By Andre Norton and Caroline Fike

Chapter Seven

Hastening to quit Drowsing Wood, Hart came to an area where an assart had long ago been hacked from the heavy timber. He paused to survey the humble dwellings and noted with a tinge of sadness, someone’s dream of freedom, won by hard labor, had clearly ended in defeat. Thatch roofs on the low buildings were sagging in, shelter now only for birds and small furtive animals. Had life here proven too harsh, driving the occupants back to village life, or had some darker fate befallen them?

As he stood at the edge of the road, a clear sweet sound, breaking his mood, floated to him on the late afternoon breeze. It was the voice of a woman singing, and such a voice! Not wanting to be seen just then, Hart ducked behind a hedge, once a fence for the assart.

Having not long to wait, he was startled when just before the singer came into view, words of her song filtered into his consciousness and with them, a sudden rapid twitching from his Emerald Eye.

“And from the Eye there shot a beam

Of Light and Power—Emerald Green…”

Holding his hand over the eye patch, Hart strained to see the songster through the thorny tangle of his hiding place. Barely making out the woman’s slender form, he realized that she was not alone. Towering at her side was a man in the habit of a wandering monk, such as were often seen passing through Stamglen.

Cautious, but driven to learn more of the pair, Hart waited until they had disappeared around a bend in the path. Finding it easy to follow the snatches of song, he kept pace with the travelers until they reached their destination for the night, an inn scarcely a day’s journey from Under Stamglen, The Purloined Goose, run by one Jacon the Elder. Here the young man could safely join the evening’s guests and observe the others without attracting attention to himself.

Taking a seat in a shadowed corner of the smoky taproom, he ordered a pot of ale and some dark bread. Paying with a coin from those Owlglass had given him on parting, Hart settled back, the picture of a weary man enjoying his leisure after a hard day’s travel. Relaxed, he might appear, but all senses were fully in play. What better place to learn the present state of affairs in Stamglen, to say nothing of observing the singer and her companion.

Before long it became obvious that the influx of customers was far above that of a normal night on the Gamlin Road. Snatches of greetings and conversation soon indicated the reason. All were bound for a forthcoming festival to honor a handfasting among the gentry. So much the better, thought Hart. No one will notice one more traveler. He could move about freely until the time to present Attabirch’s message to the Reeve.

Loud voices penetrated Hart’s musing, when one of the crowd called out, “Give us a song, Bard Brydwen!” To this, many others added their support and the slender singer from the road lifted her voice, accompanying herself from time to time with a small rebec. Entranced, the young man drew closer to the front, the better to take in the beauty of the music and its maker.

Thus it was he found himself the object of her amber-eyed gaze, altogether a pleasant experience. Careful, man, he prodded himself. It would not do to let down his guard now, so he retreated to his corner. However, all thought of guards melted, when, on finishing her performance, Brydwen actually approached him. “May I sit here? The press is great by the fire and I have need of some space.”

Hart bowed to the young woman. “Suit yourself, lady.”

Throwing her head back in a peal of laughter, she responded. “It’s no lady, I am, traveler, simply a bard seeking to earn what I can at yonder village festival.”

“With skill as you display, Bard Brydwen, that should follow with ease.” The young man felt a slight flush rise from his collar.

“Why, thank you! But you have the better of me. You know my name and my trade, while I know naught of yours.” Her exquisitely molded brows rose to frame her question.

“I am called Hart. I too seek employment in Under Stamglen, but not for the festival. I am a scrivener.” Why was it so easy to talk to this slip of a girl? “It is my turn for a question. Who is your traveling companion?”

Raising one of her rust colored brows, she favored him with a long gaze. “Been watchin’ me, have you?”

“I— heard your singing back on the road and saw you pass. One must take care in traveling, you never know who might be lurking.” Hart felt embarrassment grow with this stammering defense.

“’T would seem that my traveling companion and I should be takin’ care, seein’ we were being spied on!” With that the girl stood so abruptly that she overturned her stool. She spun to stalk through the crowded room, calling for the host.

Feeling utterly rejected without quite knowing why, Hart moved to the area where many of the company were bedding down on floor and benches. So much for gathering information, he thought with a sour taste in his mouth. He would need to learn greater subtlety if he were to satisfy his curiosity.

Not wanting to be part of the growing throng of travelers, Hart rose long before first light and set out, chewing on journey bread from his pack. He could ill afford to exhaust his slender store of coins. Then he remembered the gold tucked in the bottom of his pouch. But, how could he make use of that? To show such would mark him immediately for suspicion at best and attack at worst. No, there must be some way to convert his small treasure to a more common means of trade.

Striding through the growing dawn, Hart soon forgot troubling thoughts in the freshness of a fair morning. Forest gave way to undulating fields. As the demesne came into view, the pattern, which supported manor life, was evident. A patchwork of fields, outlined with hedgerows, some cultivated in narrow strips, spread almost web-like from a central cluster of buildings. Under Stamglen lay, as it had grown over countless years, astride the Gamlin Road, a busy trading route.

Above the huddle of low dwellings, fronting that meandering track, loomed the castle itself. Still in transformation from its ancient structure, new stone walls joined with wooden towers. Atop a great mound, thrust up by long dead generations of surfs, the principal seat of Lord Stormund awoke a painful memory.

Never would he ride proudly under the portcullis, through the barbican and across the massive drawbridge, resplendent in mail hauberk and surcoat. Shaking himself briskly, Hart turned his gaze from the heights to the village nestled beneath it. Here lay his future, at least for now; there was no room for dreaming of a past that might not have even existed, so far had the young man come from his roots and training.

Signs of the coming festival sprouted everywhere. Knots of villagers and travelers gathered around an open field that had long served as jousting ground for the knights of Stamglen. Morning wind fluttered banners set on tall staffs as workers scurried about laden with bundles of wood and rolls of cloth. Already booths and tents sprouted along the perimeter.

Whoever was being feted here must be of high rank indeed, Hart thought, wondering who merited such honor. The identity of the guests of honor soon became evident, for, with a gut-wrenching wave of recognition, he spotted three riders slowly circling the parade: Sir Lazarous, the Lady Arin and another.

Trembling, Hart ducked into the shadow of a booth, to watch their progress. Engaged in animated conversation, the three passed close enough that he could have almost spat upon their horses’ legs, when Lazarous’s head suddenly jerked upward and he turned abruptly to look in Hart’s direction. Forewarned by a tingling in his Eye, he moved quickly behind the cover, however. That was too close! Somehow the Champion seemed to sense a presence—though the look of puzzlement on the cold features told him that Lazarous was yet unsure.

Sweating profusely, the young man hastily left the field. He must exercise even greater care. More was at work here than perhaps he had guessed. Much remained to be uncovered.

Turning toward the village, he mingled with the arriving knots of travelers as carefully as he could, to simply listen. Thus Hart learned the festival was in honor of the handfasting of the Lady Arin to Norvill, cousin to Sir Lazarous. A piece of news, indeed! There was to be a banquet in the great hall of the castle on the morrow, followed the next day by jousting and games for the villeins. Lord Stormund had generously provided for the common folk to enjoy their own feast in honor of the Lady Arin and Norvill. To culminate the festivities, Norvill would be knighted by the Lord of Stamglen.

Hart wandered aimlessly along one the village’s two streets. At one end the houses were sturdily built combinations of timber and daubed clay, newly whitewashed. Symbols above some of the doors indicated craft guilds, while another sprouted the staff and sheaf of an inn where ale could be had in plenty, not that ale was unavailable elsewhere. Every woman in the vill turned her hand to the making of ale, some with fine results, others not so satisfactory.

Finally spotting what he sought, the young man turned to a dwelling that sported the crude outline of a quill and parchment. Here the surfs and freemen would come to have their fees recorded by the village Reeve. Entering the open door, he stepped into a small room. The floor was strewn with new rushes in honor of the occasion, presenting an uncommon cleanliness.

At one end of the room a lazy curl of smoke from a fire pit rose to a hole in the thatch roof; at the other stood a high table and stool that served for a desk. Seated hunched over a parchment at the table, a cadaverously thin man scratched away with a pen. Not bothering to look up he spoke:

“Well, don’t just stand there! What have you to declare? The fee is one tenth of your wares or twelve pence, whichever be greater.” The scribe continued his writing.

“Nay, Reeve. I have naught to declare, not being a merchant. I bring a message.” Hart nearly fidgeted, remembering the many times he had stood, as a lad, to give account of his actions to Father Corbin.

Looking sharply up at last, the Reeve squinted at him as one too long at his work in poor light. “Why didn’t you say so? Give it here.”

The man snatched impatiently the scrap of parchment Hart held out and studied it for a moment. “I see. So, you claim to be a scrivener? Ever work with accounts like these?” The Reeve indicated what lay in an untidy pile on his desk.

“No, I have not. My training has been from the Church, but I know sums and have a clear hand.” Hart’s confidence did not quite measure up to his words, but he must carry this off. Much depended on a valid reason for him to bide in Under Stamglen.

“That shall be seen. Here, let me see what you can do.” Motioning Hart to take his place, the Reeve stood aside. “Do you read the tally sticks?”

“I have some knowledge of them, but not in full.” Honest admission would serve best now, the young man thought.

“Of need they are simple, being the way in which unlettered surfs keep count of their stock.” The Reeve, who finally told Hart that his name was Moklin, demonstrated the way to convert the tally marks to numbers.

Finding it simple enough, Hart took up the quill to begin entering figures in the columns on the parchment before him.

“One thing, more.” Moklin added. “You will know the man by his mark. See here?” He indicated a distinct cutting on each tally stick. “Jock’s is three slashes with a deep cut across. Rupert’s mark is a circle cut around the top.”

“Yes, I see.” Hart felt a touch of excitement. “And at the head of each section of the record you have repeated the man’s mark.”

“You have it.” The Reeve studied the youth for a few heartbeats. “You may be blind in one eye, but at least you show wit.” With that the gaunt man turned to leave, calling back as he crossed the threshold: “I must pay a visit to the merchants and entertainers. Don’t want anyone thinking he can slip in without a fee.”

Hart smiled to himself. This Reeve was clearly the right man for the job; he seemed to take real pleasure in pursuit of would-be cheaters. Turning to his task, the new scrivener set to with a will, in frowning concentration.

Some time had passed, when, without warning, Hart’s Eye came into play. The tally stick in his hand suddenly warmed, seeming to waver before him. Briefly an image, quite different from what his ungifted eye revealed, materialized. This record was false. The Gift of recognizing fraud was in play! But how could he expose the liar without putting himself in danger? It might serve best to bide his time and watch for an opportunity to confront the guilty one with some penetrating questions, to say nothing of the penetrating “green gaze”. The new scrivener almost chuckled aloud. This just might prove enjoyable.

When Reeve Moklin returned, clearly pleased with his morning’s ferreting, there was further cause for satisfaction waiting on the desk. All tallies had been entered and the figures crosschecked. “Well done, lad!” The older man forgot to maintain his gruff demeanor. “It would seem that you have earned yourself employment.” He absently scratched behind his ear. “Now, I can’t offer much of a wage, but there is space in the loft for you to sleep and you can take meals at my table. Beyond that, we will see.”

Thinking rapidly, Hart nodded. “For now, it is enough. Perhaps I can make myself of greater value as time goes on.”

Though Moklin gave him a penetrating look, the Reeve said no more on the matter. Taking up the parchment, he rolled it and inserted it into a long pouch that hung from a peg behind the desk. “That is all for now. You are at liberty to join the festival. Little work will be accomplished, since celebration is on the minds of lords and commons alike!”

Laughing, Hart agreed and rose to leave his new situation, much lighter in spirit than when he had arrived. Striding back toward the tournament ground, he even whistled tunelessly, exchanging greetings with travelers that thronged the way.

Many more pavilions had sprouted since his earlier visit. Vendors of all manner of foods, ales and even some wines, lined the west side of the parade, while on the south there were sellers of exotic fabrics, unfamiliar spices and—he stopped in his tracks—even a jewel-smith! Perhaps here might be a means of converting his bits of gold into common coin. He must return later to pursue this.

Strolling past the preparations for the tournament, the former knight once more indulged himself; then the milling of heralds, placing names of their champions in the lists, tents to house visiting knights, the scents of leather, horse sweat and polish: all burst upon him with the power of a lance blow. Yes, he had to admit to himself, I do miss it! Memories surged through Hart, warming his blood.

Somewhere to his left a familiar voice rang out, breaking harshly into his reverie. “Hail, friend! Welcome back.” Almost, Hart responded, forgetting for an instant that he no longer belonged to the brotherhood. The greeting was not meant for him! Turning abruptly he fled from the scene of so many of his happy memories, sweat pouring from beneath the hood that hid his headpiece.

At length, slowing his pace, the young man began to notice the activity about him more sharply. He had crossed the parade ground to the north end where a low platform had been set up for entertainments. Jugglers and gleemen, mummers and beast tamers spread out on either side, waiting their turns at the center.

He looked about to see if Brydwen was present. The sudden thought of her bred a curious tingle in him, one which became a shiver as he glimpsed her at the far fringe of the crowd, playing a thin vertical reed flute. Strangely drawn, Hart edged toward the bard, her melody reaching him above the surrounding din. It seemed to enter his soul and block out all else but sweet sound, however, the moment she caught sight of him, the music ceased. With a frown and twirl of her flaming hair, the girl ducked behind the towering monk, ever her shadow, and was gone.

For long moments Hart stood bereft. What gift gave this woman such power over him?

 

 

 

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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.