Rusted Armor

By Andre Norton and Caroline Fike

Chapter Nine

“A boon feast! A boon feast! Lord Stormund has decreed a boon feast!” The shout echoed through the streets of Under Stamglen, bringing a quick response from all quarters. Villeins poured from their homes to answer the call. Children raced about their parents in a general din of excitement that energized Hart, though he had had precious little sleep.

The words of Brydwen’s “Lay of Tok” had woven their way through his dreams, calling up images, leaving him shaken as the tolling of the bell for Prime finally woke him. Determined to put such thoughts from him, Hart washed and dressed quickly to set out for the festival ground.

A rich scent of bacon and spices mingled with others, many far less appetizing, amid the rows and rows of booths. Most merchants and tradesmen were just beginning to seek their booths, calling greetings and requests to borrow across aisles. Hart paused at a cook’s table selecting a pasty filled with steaming turnips and a bit of ham. The air was still cool at this early hour and a pot of hot, spiced cider helped to warm him.

As he moved from the food-vendors’ row Hart crossed an area set aside for chapmen with exotic wares from distant lands. Goods varied from spices, common and uncommon, such as saffron, mace, cinnamon and cardamon, to fabrics and leathers. One booth in particular displayed bolts of cloth dyed in exquisite hues. A tall merchant bowed to him with a flourish, touching hand to brow and lips in salute. Dark skin and hair marked him as one from the distant lands to the east. When he would have engaged the scrivener in commerce, Hart smiled and shook his head, “Nay, my thanks, Chapman, but I have no need of your fine wares.”

The steady grind of a wheel drew the new scrivener’s attention as he passed into the craftsmen’s quarter. A bent-shouldered man curled over his work, putting edge to a fine blade. “Rare work, Master Cutler.” Hart complimented the obviously well-made piece.

“Aye, it is a throwing blade. The spice merchant ordered it for his son.” The man peered up at Hart, the grin twisting his face more a grimace than a smile. He himself had felt the edge of a like blade in the distant past, for a long scar had clearly injured the muscles on one side of his visage.

“My name is Hart. I am scrivener to Reeve Moklin.” Hart was abrupt—the sooner he established his identity the better.

“So I know. Ye’ve been the subject of some curiosity, bein’ new come an’ wearin’ that patch. I be Sprell. Sit, if ye’re pleased to. Ye’re like to spill that drink, if’n ye don’ tak’ care.” The wizened man chuckled and motioned to an overturned bucket.

Having nowhere to go in particular, Hart sat contentedly, stretching his long legs before him.

“Thank you, Cutler. It’s a pleasure to watch a fine craftsman at work. I have no skill with handiwork, but one is always better for the seeing of it in the making.” Feeling good to just be companionable, Hart realized there had been scarce room in his life for idleness.

As he continued to watch Sprell deftly handling the dagger, another visitor arrived. “Fine day, to you, Cutler! Perchance I may interest you in some decoration for that trinket?” The portly man huffed a bit from the exertion of navigating the increasingly crowed festival ground.

“Think you that I need your baubles to enhance m’work?” The bantering tone clued Hart that these two were long time friends.

“A fine weapon, no doubt, Sprell, but it would be a work of art with some of my stones!” A throaty laugh rumbled from somewhere beneath layers of well-maintained fat.

“We’ll see, Glodrun.” The cutler gestured again and the newcomer kicked over another bucket to join Hart. “This be Moklin’s new scrivener, Hart by name.”

“Ah, a man of learning! Now there’s a fine profession.” It was clear that Glodrun was skilled in the glib talk that put folk at ease. Hart nodded to him and said nothing.

“As Sprell here has said, I am called Glodrun. Jewel Smithing is my trade. I deal in all manner of stones, fashioning settings myself in precious metals.” Smiling, he thrust out a chubby hand to display his wares. Every finger bore a different sort of ring, some simple, others portraying fantastical beasts. Any cathedral would proudly display the gargoyle that glared from the jewel smith’s thumb.

An idea suddenly occurred to Hart. This might be just the one to take some of his bits of gold! He would mark the man’s booth and seek him out later. Rising, he bid the two craftsmen good day, and ambled off to continue his explorations.

He had gone only a short distance when a conglomeration of scents assaulted his nose, making him sneeze and rub his watering eye. Turning about, he located the source. From a small copper kettle nearby floated a thread of vapor. Behind it a tall woman was crushing some leaves to dribble the bits into a steaming mixture. Her hair grew thick and dark, though her face betrayed her advancing years. Smiling at Hart, she called out, “Herbs! Herbs to lighten your life? For health, for joy, for love, for hate: I’ll share ancient secrets for a very small fee.”

Without knowing quite why, Hart turned toward the herbalist. He surely had no need of her wares, but something about the woman drew him. Perhaps he had “seen” a brief glimpse of a greater knowledge in her. No matter, it would be informative to examine her products.

“Ah, young man, you do well to seek out Hesta. She holds many secrets!” Turning abruptly, the woman reached into a basket that lay behind her and brought out a small drawstring bag. “Perhaps you could use a potion for sleep? You look as if you have not had much rest.”

“Perceptive, Herb Woman. I slept but poorly the night gone, but I fear a potion would not cure what ails me.” Hart found it quite easy to talk to this Hesta. He took in a deep breath of vapor from her kettle.

“Then, we must look deeper.” She stepped near and peered closely at his face, reaching out to touch his Eye patch. Hart jerked violently away. Too close!

“Your pardon!” The herbalist snatched back her hand. “I meant no harm. It’s just—I have a gift for sensing when someone is troubled. You, my lad, are deeply concerned about something.”

Hart looked at her with an expression of intense suspicion. “That is my affair, Hesta.”

“Of course! And none of mine, but take advice from me, if you take nothing else. Tread cautiously. You walk a path that bears many shadows.” Her gray eyes seemed to pierce Hart’s inmost thoughts. It was decidedly uncomfortable.

“I will give you one thing more: if you would prepare yourself for danger, come to the montjoy on the Gamlin-Tuckgrove crossroad after moonset three days hence. I know you are much more than you appear to be, nor are you alone in this.” Handing him a small piece of dark green stone, she continued, “Come, if you would meet others like yourself. Present this to the one who stands waiting by the montjoy. It is your safe passage.” With that, the herb woman turned to call out her wares to new prospects strolling by.

Feeling his scalp prickle where the headpiece rested, Hart moved away, palming the stone. As it warmed with the touch of his hand, a delicate fragrance wafted to tickle his nose. He had thought himself unsettled before. Now his mind seethed with questions and uneasiness. What power lay in his hand? Who was this woman, to see so deeply into him? Dared he take her advice? This would certainly bear some pondering.

In a deep study over the events of the past day and night, Hart wandered aimlessly until he found himself in the area of the beast sellers and tamers. Drawing near a row of cages, he suddenly cringed in pain as though an intangible shaft of fire pierced his shoulder and left him shaking. Before he could scarcely recover from the shock of the seeming attack, another, more intense penetrated his head and dropped him to his knees, gasping for breath. What—!

At the moment the pain was at its worst, he heard a shrill scream coming from no human throat. Something, some animal was in agony. But, where? Hart could see no activity. Staggering to his feet, he struggled along the line of cages. Nothing there. Then it struck again, this time in his legs.

In desperation he flipped up the Eye patch just enough to sweep the area around him. There! Just beyond the iron cages was a wooden fence, hastily set up for the beast tamers to work their animals before performing. Hart struggled to reach the gate and found it chained fast. Putting his gifted eye to a small crack, he viewed a scene that nearly made him retch. A huge man, clad in leather leggings, vest and gauntlets, circled a huddled form, bound and lying at his feet. A small black animal was snarling and writhing in a vain attempt to avoid the punishment being meted out by the tamer.

In one hand the shaggy-headed man held a whip; in the other, a slender rod with a tip that had obviously been heated on a nearby fire. Its tip was cherry red. As the tormenter uttered a series of guttural curses, he alternately lashed and prodded the creature.

Anger, such as Hart had never felt, even when ill-used himself, exploded within him. Leaping to grasp the top of the wood enclosure, he vaulted over and shouted to gain the man’s attention. “Coward! Leave be! No beast deserves that. See if you are equal to someone who can fight back!”

With a roar, the man whirled, in the same motion flinging the rod at Hart, expecting to see it plunge into his chest, but the former knight had lost none of his reflexes. He leaped aside as the weapon lodged harmlessly in the wooden fence. The beast tamer mouthed another curse and charged at Hart, swinging the heavy whip in a vicious circle above his head. By this time Hart had calmed enough to realize that he was physically no match for the giant.

Moving the Eye patch fully up, Hart loosed an emerald blaze at the charging beast tamer. It struck him squarely in the forehead and, for all his bulk, flipped the man end-over-end, to land in a heap of dung left by some of his charges.

Hart knelt to examine him and assure himself that his foe was only unconscious, not dead. “Well,” Hart thought, “he will have more to think about than this poor animal, when he wakes up. His head will seem thrice normal size, I’ll warrant.

*Deserves it!* The statement came, not quite in words, but Hart took well the meaning. Looking about to see who had spoken, his Eye came to rest on the abused creature. He realized, astonished, that the message had reached his mind from that of the beast. Gently the scrivener cut the cruel bindings from the small legs. “Why, it’s a tiny pard!”

*Demi-Pard, manling.* The curious communication came once more. Hart shook his head, still unsure of what he was experiencing.

“Did you—?” He stuttered at the idea of speaking with an animal, but this was no stranger than much he had done of late.

*Did.* The green-gold eyes were fixed upon Hart now. *Hurt. Need heal!* The message came urgently, jolting Hart from his musing.

“Yes, my small friend, you are sorely hurt, but I think I know who can help you.” Carefully lifting the small black animal and cradling it in his arms, Hart strode to the fence, put the pard down for a moment until he could kick down the gate, then lifted it once more and moved swiftly in the direction of the herb woman’s booth.

“Hesta, Hesta!” Hart’s shout brought her from behind a curtain at the back of the enclosure. “Can you help this little one? It has been ill treated.”

“Oh, aye, lad. Hesta knows just what the wee beast needs. Ooch, who could treat it so?” Crooning to the injured animal, she took it from Hart and placed it carefully on her own cot inside the small sleeping chamber behind her sales table.

“A tamer did it,” Hart spoke through gritted teeth.

“I’ll care for it, never fear, but you’d best report this to the Bailiff. Such abuse is strictly forbidden here.” Hesta shooed Hart out. “When you come back later to check you’ll see a much improved patient. I promise.”

Loath to leave the tiny pard, Hart, nonetheless went off in search of the Bailiff. Hesta was right. The beast tamer, rather beast tormenter, must be punished and at the least banished from the festival and any further dealings in Under Stamglen. He would see to that!

When at length he found the Bailiff, there was no time to make his charge against the beast tamer, for cries and shouts from the food vendors’ quarter signaled trouble. Hart followed to see what the ruckus was about and to wait his turn with the Bailiff. They arrived at an alewife’s booth in time to witness the sturdy woman swinging an ale pot to fend off blows, all the while screeching at the attacker. “Petter Webster, you drunken sot! I gave you good ale in fair measure.”

The young man in question landed a blow on the woman’s jaw, toppling her to crash back onto her trestle table. Plunging into the fray before more damage could be done, the husky Bailiff seized the weaver’s son in a bear-like grip. “Cease! Shame, man! Weren’t you taught to respect womanhood?”

The youth continued to struggle so violently that Hart had to assist in subduing him. Finally there was nothing for it, but they must lift and carry the miscreant, squirming and cursing to a nearby horse trough. Neatly dunking and holding him under the water for a moment or two, they hauled the youth, spluttering but much chastened, to sit on the edge of the stone basin.

“Now, what do you have to say for yourself, Petter?” The Bailiff stood with folded arms.

“She served me watered ale!” Young Webster almost whined.

“So? Is that cause to attack a woman?” The officer replied. “You need only lodge a complaint with me and she would have to answer at Hallmote. As it is now, you are officially charged with hamsoken.”

“Hamsoken!” The weaver’s son blanched. “B—but that names an attack in another’s home.”

“For the duration of the festival, this booth is her home. You have no excuse. You will appear to make an answer.” With that the Bailiff turned to Hart. “Now, Scrivener, you were making a charge?”

Looking back to make sure the alewife was being tended to, Hart nodded. “Yes, Bailiff, I wish to make formal accusation against a beast tamer, large, hairy man dressed in leather. I surprised him in the process of torturing a dwarf pard this morning.”

“Hmm, torture? Where is the animal?” The Bailiff motioned for Hart to precede him.

“I will show you. Hesta, the Herb Woman is caring for it.” They shoved their way through the knot of folk who had gathered to enjoy the excitement of the fight at the alewife’s booth.

When they reached the herbalist’s small cubby, Hart felt a wave of warm contentment. Greatly relieved, he hailed her. “Hesta, I have the Bailiff here. He has some questions and would see the victim.”

The tall woman parted the curtain and poked her head through. “Come in, then. See for yourself what a so-called man did to an animal. Me thinks the name ‘beast’ should be laid upon the one who made this poor creature suffer so.”

The Bailiff stood quietly, looking down at the now sleeping pard. It was clear just how severely the small cat had been abused. Through gritted teeth, the officer spoke, “It is as you say, Scrivener. I think I will pay a visit to the tamer. His welcome at Under Stamglen is, by his own act, withdrawn. Charges will be brought against him in the Hallmote or, be he a free man, in the royal courts, and I venture a significant fine will deliver a much needed lesson.”

“Pity he can’t feel some of the same pain the cat suffered.” Hesta’s dry comment struck a chord with both men.

When the Bailiff had gone off in response to another urgent call to maintain peace in the turbulent festival ground, Hart smiled at the herb woman. “Thank you, Hesta. You have wrought well with the little one.”

“‘Tis no more than any healer would do. I don’t claim much skill in that art, but such as I have, is gladly rendered.” She took a seat on a low stool beside the resting animal. “I will watch a while, in case a fever should develop. Those wounds were filthy, though I cleansed them as best I could. There is always a chance they will turn foul.”

The woman shooed Hart out of the booth. “Go, attend the feast, lad. You have earned a bit of pleasure.”

“I’ll be back in the morning. A fair evening to you, Hesta.” Hart ducked under the curtain and out into the bustling crowd, bound now for the groaning tables loaded with food for the night’s festivity. He looked about, hoping to see a particular face in the sea of villeins, only to be disappointed.

At the edge of the parade ground a huge pit had been dug, a fire laid many hours earlier, and a whole ox placed on an immense spit above the coals. Done now to the point of falling into pieces, the meat’s aroma did more to gather the people than shouting criers.

Hart snatched a thick slice cut from a dark loaf of wheat bread, a treat for the common folk who usually had to be satisfied with rye. He speared a dripping chunk of meat with his silver knife, placed it on the bread trencher, grabbed a pot of ale from a rapidly disappearing supply on a nearby trestle and wound his way out of the crush to find a spot to sit and enjoy his meal.

When the general confusion of the meal settled somewhat, musicians and jugglers, calling for attention, launched into the evening’s entertainment, somewhat more bawdy and free than Hart had observed the night before in the castle. A favorite subject of mummers was the not-so-subtle mimicry of nobles, the Champion in particular. Laughing until his side cramped, the scrivener thoroughly appreciated the comedy. In passing he thought, however, it would never do for Sir Lazarous to learn the identities of those poking so much fun at him, but Hart admired their nerve.

When the last fun had subsided and a final round of drinks in honor of Lord Stormund and been raised, Hart levered himself up to head, somewhat unsteadily, home to bed. His small loft was welcoming as he dropped wearily onto his pallet.

Before sleep had quite claimed him, there came into his mind a near caress: *Good rest, manling. Make friend.*

 

 

 

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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.