Rusted Armor

By Andre Norton and Caroline Fike

Chapter Eight

“Hart!” Moklin shouted, entering the room where the scrivener sat working at his desk. Excitement crackled from the Reeve as he paced back and forth, rubbing his hands like a miser over his hoard.

“Yes, Reeve. What is it?” Hart barely suppressed a grin at the thin man’s behavior, so out of character. Normally his employer was a somber soul with little on his mind but business.

“The feast! I am to assist in seating the guests and you—you are summoned to be a pourer.” He spoke as though announcing the highest of honors. “So many are invited to the celebration that Lord Stormund’s servants are unable to handle the crowd. A number of the village officials and their people have been pressed into duty. What a banquet it will be!”

“When must we attend?” Hart still fought to contain his amusement. He had not seen Moklin so animated.

“Preparations have been moving forward since long before daylight. We are to arrive just after the bell for Nones has sounded. In the meanwhile, we must go to be garbed as befits our task.” With that the wiry man spun and beckoned Hart to follow.

As they reached the steep wooden ramp leading up to the postern gate of Stamglen Castle, a long line of provisioners and villagers waited to make deliveries or be assigned tasks. Interspersed among the milling crowd, armsmen and castle retainers carefully inspected the contents of carts and watched for strange faces. It would not do for an enemy to slip unnoticed into the celebration, bent on trouble.

Hart gazed up at the immense fortifications. The new stone walls, at least twenty paces thick at the base, tapered to a width at the top that would allow a company of archers to pass. They were crowned with crenellations upon which carpenters labored to construct timber hoards. Lord Stormund must truly fear attack, Hart thought as he observed the men at work. Woe be to any who might approach this fortification with evil intent. A fierce welcome would await from within the hoards—arrows raining, great rocks dropping, let alone a bath of boiling oil! Against whom were such preparations being made?

Even above the postern gate a stone machicolation protruded like an eyebrow with similar defenses to discourage attack. At every corner lofty towers providing both lookout and defense fortified the great curtain wall. Memories threatened to flood Hart once more, but he thrust them from him, having no time to dwell on what had been; there lay before him now a task, one which was becoming slowly more clear each day.

Before they could reach their goal, a small figure would have collided with Hart had he not quickly sidestepped the headlong flight. Reaching out to steady the lad, he noticed a gleam of moisture, which was swiftly hidden as the boy flung his arm up across his face and darted away. Now that is a very unhappy page, unless I sorely misread him, Hart thought.

Jolted out of his musings by a clout on the shoulder, Hart followed Moklin up the ramp and through the postern. Crossing an all too familiar quadrangle to the great central keep, they came at last to the entrance of the guardhouse on the bottom level. Again the former knight had to suppress welling recollections.

Soon, however, the business of receiving livery and instructions exorcised the ghosts of past joys and agonies. Content to follow Moklin, Hart returned to the village until they must report for duty.

The remainder of the morning was taken up with personal preparation for the night’s work. Hart fetched and heated water over the smoky fire in the Reeve’s great room. Taking enough to meet his needs, he climbed to his loft and bathed thoroughly before donning the Stormund livery. Over a long sleeved shirt of sapphire blue, he pulled a silvery tunic, emblazoned with the charging boar, Lord Stormund’s crest beast. To this he added bi-colored hose—one of blue and one of silver—soft black boots, ankle high, and a short black coat with flowing, slashed sleeves that reached to his knees. Finally, once he had combed his long hair and gathered it back with a bit of cord, he replaced the headpiece and was relieved to find that the high crowned hat of supple blue leather completely covered it. Retying his Eye patch, Hart was now ready for a very different kind of service to his one-time lord.

As the bell for Nones chimed, Moklin and his clerk returned to the castle, this time entering through the barbican, across a middle-height crenellated ramp and over the great draw bridge. As they passed under the portcullis, Hart felt a new stab of recollection. As a small boy he had been certain that the giant teeth above were just waiting to drop and impale him. He had never quite overcome a vague sense of apprehension whenever he moved through the huge portal. Wondering if he would yet regret returning to this forbidding place, he shook himself mentally to be rid of dark thoughts.

Castle Stamglen seethed with activity, making Hart grateful that he was no stranger to its environs. However, he took care that Moklin would not guess his familiarity, but quietly followed the man to the antechamber where servitors gathered for instructions from the manorial steward. Finding his assignment, he took up his stand to await the beginning of the feast.

At a signal from Steward Attabirch, the retainers and pressed servers formed two lines along the vaulted corridor leading to the great hall. The clarion call of trumpets echoed through the castle, followed by a crier heralding the entrance of Lord Stormund and his honored guests. Cheers surged along the waiting ranks as the nobles and notables progressed slowly between them. Biting his tongue, Hart willed himself to stature stillness when Sir Lazarous, with the Lady Arin on his arm, passed so close that he could have reached out to grasp their garments.

Beautiful in her tall, bejeweled headdress, the bride-to-be swept through the admiring crowd. Her flowing gown of deep rose rippled with each dignified step, revealing soft blue inner sleeves and a high band belting her slender form just beneath small breasts.

Arin certainly seemed the picture of bright joy, however, to Hart’s Emerald Eye, she presented quite a different aspect. He sensed in her, though only briefly, a deep despair. No such mystery was Lazarous. Resplendent in an ermine trimmed, pleated tunic of moss green gathered with a golden sword belt, he was the image of self-satisfaction. Bearing himself quite as regally as a prince, the Lord’s Champion set Hart to wondering.

Could this knight have aspirations far beyond his station? The Eye failed penetrate beyond the Champion’s suave surface, but somewhere in the depths of the young scrivener’s mind a voice whispered: Lazarous has many dark secrets. Hart had only time to promise himself to search out those secrets, when he was plunged into a flurry of activity. Pouring wine and ale for such a thirsty lot kept him fully occupied for the next two hours.

Row upon row of trestle tables, covered with snowy linen cloths, groaned with food. Before most of the guests servers placed thick bread trenchers and large carven and polished wood cups. Before each noble, however, fine golden goblets stood, waiting to be filled.

Hart’s duty was to approach the side of a guest and fill the empty cup or goblet, alternating by presenting a moist cloth for the cleansing of greasy hands and mouths. Despite all his strength, won in knightly training and trekking with the hermit, to say naught of his journey of proving, he was heartily glad when a second shift of servers took over. Guests were well into their cups and would little notice that the service was not quite the quality it had been at first, along with the drink.

He returned to the room set apart for the servers and, finding a spot on a bench in a shadowed corner, dropped wearily upon it. Far too exhausted to eat, Hart was content to give his protesting feet some relief. Even the din of the milling servants scarcely penetrated the haze that settled over him. For a few moments he drifted into sleep, only to be awakened abruptly by—he did not know what.

There it was! Low voices came from behind the column against which Hart was resting. “The master says to fetch her to the chamber before dawn.” The words were barely audible.

“But the ceremony is only two days off. How can—?” The conversation was suddenly cut off and Hart dared not show his interest, though he was bursting to see who the speakers had been. Keeping his uncovered eye shut, he managed to peek through the shielding patch in time to catch a fleeting glimpse of—Lazarous’s men, as he had suspected.

Dared he follow? Lord Stormund’s livery would divert suspicion enough for him to move about the castle. He waited a moment or two, then stepped out in time to see the two men pass into a side corridor. Walking as if on an errand, Hart kept them in sight for a time. When one of them turned, he quickly reached up to adjust a rush light, as though it were his assigned task.

Wishing heartily that his hearing could be as acute as the vision in his gifted eye, he moved as close as he dared, to glimpse his quarry turning along a dark passage that led, from what Hart could remember, to a narrow stair spiraling down to storage vaults below. He waited for a few heartbeats then began to descend. Just making out the murmur of voices, he continued following.

The stair opened into a series of cave-like chambers used to store wine and barrels of salted meats in winter. Cautiously creeping in a crouching position, Hart came to the end of the last chamber and found—nothing! Where—? The men could not have doubled back, of this he was sure, but how did they escape him? There must be some hidden way beyond the wine vaults, but now was not the time to seek it out.

A shrill whistle could be heard from an airshaft the led to the serving chamber above. It was time for Hart to return to duty, but he must certainly come again to explore. Somewhere beyond that seemingly solid wall lay clues to the growing mystery of Sir Lazarous.

An explosion of music and laughter greeted him as he entered the hall. Mummers cavorted in fantastic costumes representing mythical beasts while minstrels accompanied them on psaltery, viele, rebec, pipe and tabor. When the gyrations of the dancers had subsided, a sudden quiet settled over the gathered banqueters. Brydwen the Bard stood forth and began a haunting tune on her flute. As its final notes echoed through the huge room, she launched into song.

“Come hear a tale of treachery and pain;

Of courage and sacrifice, glory and gain.

When Evil did triumph and hope was nigh lost,

As in a far kingdom, the people were curst.

Their wealth was all plundered; they saw only Death

Approaching, unhindered, o’er a stark grisly path.

When out of their midst stood a youth of their own,

Whom all did consider, but callow, un-grown.

Through the desperate throng he passed to contend

With Evil in battle, which all thought must end

In bitter defeat, for how could a lad

All weaponless, master a foe, where None had

With sword, mace or arrow, or even a spear

Done damage or staggered the Enemy near?

But out of the murk of the battleground shone

A brilliant light from the Youth, so alone.

All green was the gleam from his curious eye.

It pierced through the Darkness; in vain was the try

Of his Foeman to turn from that thrust, deadly true.

Thus triumphed the Light over Dark, but think you

That any will know when a Gift is at work

Like the Emerald Eye of Tok, out of Tchurk?

Thunderous applause, accompanied by the pounding of cups upon the trestle tables, reverberated throughout the hall when the Bard bowed before Lord Stormund. The old noble beckoned Brydwen to step forward. “Mistress Bard, a passing fair voice, you have and heroic, your rhyme! You pleased my guests and myself as well. Who is your master?”

“I have none, my lord. I am but a wandering bard, with no true home, but passing throughout the land collecting tales by which to entertain as I may.” She curtseyed low, a lock of her auburn hair creeping out from beneath her wimple.

“What think you, then, of staying to become my court bard?” The old lord gazed kindly at the young woman.

“Why—I scarcely know what to say, Sire! It would be a great honor—however.”

“Well, however—what?” Lord Stormund began to show an edge of impatience.

“If I may be so bold, my Lord. There is a monk, a near kinsman of mine, who has devoted much of his life to being my protector on my travels.”

“Ah, I see. You would not wish to take a place where he is unwelcome. Then, lass, it is settled. There is ample room in Stamglen for another holy man. He may find work assisting Father Corbin.”

A shy smile wreathed Brydwen’s exquisite features. “Oh, thank you, my Lord! I—we—will gladly stay. With your permission?” At Lord Stormund’s nod the lady bard curtseyed again and, lifting her skirts, turned to scamper out of the room in search of her companion and protector Brother Belicaus.

Reeling from the effects of Brydwen’s song, Hart, nevertheless, had discretely followed her exchange with Lord Stormund. She’s staying! The sudden thought set his pulse pounding and left a decided lump in his throat.

Now he must win her confidence. Where had she come across the tale of Tok? Finding it difficult to concentrate on his duties throughout the remainder of the evening, Hart was never so relieved as when the noble host arose and posed one last toast to the Lady Arin and Norvill, then dismissed the company.

Remembering the snatch of conversation he had overheard, Hart hung back, on the pretense of assisting in cleaning off the trestles for guests to find sleeping places. He saw that Arin and some of her ladies were exiting the hall and hurried to follow. It might be dangerous, but he had to know what the men had meant. Would someone dare to take the lady this night against her will to—where?

Knowing where Arin’s chamber was, he went in search of Moklin to tell him not to wait. The Reeve lifted an eyebrow at his announcement, but chuckled, supposing that Hart had found a wench for the evening. Indeed, it might be said that he had, but not for the purpose his master suspected. Hurrying to take up a secluded post in the corridor where the guest rooms were, he drew back into the shadow cast by a large chest.

Battling sleep and exhaustion, he nearly missed what he had come to observe. Well past the midnight hour, two cloaked figures furtively approached the lady Arin’s chamber door and simply stood for long moments. What were they about?

At length the door opened just enough to allow a slender figure, clad in a flowing garment, to slip through—Arin! She seemed unaware of the men who moved to walk on either side of her. As the trio passed Hart’s hiding place, he tasted bile. Arin’s face might have been that of a corpse. Her eyes showed arcs of white, and her jaw hung slack, but her tread was firm as if she moved with great determination.

In torment as to what to do, Hart slipped out to follow. Dared he to intervene? How would he explain his presence? Best he should simply watch. There remained many undiscovered pieces of this twisted and growing puzzle in Lord Stormund’s demesne.

It soon became obvious that Arin’s attendants were confident that they were alone, for they never looked about, but paced on in a near trance themselves. Hart was not surprised to see them move down a stair to the same storage vaults from which they had earlier disappeared. This time he would stay close. They would not escape his notice again!

As the party passed ahead of him through the long aisle of wine casks, Hart became aware of a bone-chilling cold. This was not the normal chill of the stone chamber, but that of a much darker origin. Evil magic was at work here. It did not take the quivering response of the Emerald Eye to alert him to that danger. In spite of the freezing atmosphere, he found himself sweating with the effort to place one foot in front of the other.

A cloying mist began to rise from the stone paving beneath Hart’s feet. Before he realized it, he was completely enshrouded in the unnatural grayness. A curse almost escaped his lips. Those he had been following had once more disappeared without his seeing how.

Passing his hand along the wall to his left, Hart nearly stumbled when it suddenly struck a slight out-crop and then—gave way. His arm plunged into a narrow opening, up to the elbow. Biting his tongue to silence an exclamation at the pain in his knuckle, the scrivener carefully withdrew his arm and attempted to examine the niche. A cleverly fashioned hinge operated an almost indistinguishable cover behind which a slim crevice provided a hiding place for—what?

Hart cautiously felt deeper into the slot and discovered the end of what must be a parchment scroll. Clasping it with shaking fingers he drew it forth and nearly sneezed at the dust that billowed from the hiding place. The scroll appeared to have been undisturbed for a very long time. With so little light, all he could discern on unrolling it part way was that it seemed to be a plan of the castle.

Long moments passed while he considered his next move. It was far too dark to examine the scroll here and even his gifted eye was so tired that he was unsure of what he was seeing. There was nothing for it. He must leave and return to the village.

A sudden thought occurred to Hart: the scroll! There might be a way to delve those walls without endangering himself just yet. The diagrams he had glimpsed promised much information that was not obvious to the natural eye. Carefully concealing the thin scroll under his coat, he turned to retrace his steps. He would be back to delve the mystery that lay somewhere in the bowels of Stamglen Castle.

As the weary scrivener trudged down the winding track from the castle to the village nestled beneath it, he became aware of a dim glow from a grove of trees nearby. Soft music wafted to him, hinting at who might be there.

Approaching somewhat timidly, he glimpsed a small campfire, around which lounged several musicians, Brydwen in the midst. The inviting fragrance of roasting meat wafted toward him, reminding him that, though he had been long hours at a feast, None of it had reached his belly and he was hungry.

“May I join you?” He asked no one in particular.

Brother Belicaus, who leaned against a nearby tree, beckoned him to sit by the fire. “Long night, lad?”

“Aye, brother. My feet are not quite sure they are yet of this world.” Hart plopped gratefully beside a lutenist.

“Haven’t I seen you with the Reeve?” Another of the number asked idly.

“Yes. I serve as his scrivener.” Hart cut off a chunk of the mutton leg that was slowly dripping fat into the sputtering fire.

Turning to Brydwen, he swallowed and tried to think of something to say that would not get him in further trouble with her. She was mightily prickly when it came to him, though Hart was loath to understand why.

“Your lay of the hero was a fine one, bard. Have you known it long?” A compliment should be safe enough.

“Known it? Why, scrivener, I wrote it!” She stretched and yawned. “The day has been a long one. I’m to my rest. I bid you all a fair night and a jolly day tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow? Well, it is already tomorrow—our day to feast!” The lutenist brushed his strings in a flourishing chord. A player beat a rapid tattoo on his tabor drum as the group broke up to go separate ways to bed down for the remainder of the night.

Too tired to pursue his goal and clearly dismissed by the bard, Hart rose to go. As he passed close to the monk, Brother Belicaus smiled and nodded. “Patience, lad. You will learn in time.” With these enigmatic words, the tall man hitched his belt, grasped a tall staff and strode off in the wake of the lovely bard.

 

 

 

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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.