Rusted Armor

By Andre Norton and Caroline Fike

Chapter Ten

Wincing as he sat up, Hart gingerly rose and prepared to face the day. The previous night’s celebration now demanded full payment in return. He ducked his head in a bucket of cold water and felt less bemused. When he had donned his clothing, he carefully placed the headpiece in its customary position, pulling on a knitted cap to conceal it. Instead of adding to the throb of his hangover, as he had feared, the thin band seemed to damp the unpleasant sensation, allowing him to think clearly on the day’s forthcoming event.

Tournament: the very word brought an answering tingle to Hart’s spine. How many times had he joined this same excitement with quickened pulses? Though such was now denied him, he could not escape empathizing with the youngest knights and squires who would be making ready for the joust, to say naught of charging into the following melee.

Snatching a pot of ale, some bread and cheese, the latter of which he thrust into his pouch, Hart hurried out to pay a visit to that new friend now recuperating at Hesta’s booth, planning to eat on his way. The communication that had come to him as he drifted into sleep, was it real or did he dream it? No, he thought, I made no mistake.

As if to confirm his opinion, the odd mind voice came again: *Man-friend, come! Free-Claw wait.* There was a near command in the tone. Lengthening his stride, Hart hastened to answer the call.

As he entered the herb woman’s booth, a tight-muscled black form hurled itself from behind the curtain, nearly bowling him over. At the last moment he opened his arms and catch the ecstatic pard. “Well, you seem to be quite recovered, my small friend!”

“Indeed he is!” Hesta was grinning widely. “This one has marvelous powers of recuperation. His only problem now is hunger. My fare ill-suits him.” She chuckled.

Hart stroked the soft fur. “We will just have to see to that, then.”

*Hunt?* Large green-gold eyes fixed Hart with an intense stare.

“I fear you will have to be content with a visit to the butcher’s booth, small one.” A smile played on the scrivener’s face.

*Do for now. Later, hunt.* The small pard hopped from Hart’s arms to weave in an impatient circle about his legs.

“Looks as if I have orders. My thanks, Hesta.” Hart reached into his pouch and brought out some coins. “For your care.”

“Nay, lad. That was for the little one. I did but try to undo what another of our kind had so cruelly done to him.” She bent down and caressed the sleek animal.

“I think he knows that all are not like that tamer.” Hart turned in the direction of the food vendors, motioning the pard to join him. The nimble cat bounded ahead, though not too far, clearly urging him to pick up the pace.

Laughing, Hart followed until they reached the long tables of the butcher, spread with quartered carcasses of fowl, pigs and sheep. Selecting several cuts of red meat, the pard’s companion strode to where the bustle of buyers thinned. At the edge of the fair ground a small fire glowed in a cleared circle where several travelers took turns roasting chunks of bacon.

“Well met, sojourners! May we join you?” Hart hailed them.

Looking at the pard, the obvious leader of the group spoke, “If your beast there will mind its manners, welcome.”

“You need not concern yourselves for him. He thinks of naught but the meal I just purchased him. He will be quite busy while I cook mine.” As he spoke, the pard daintily took the meat Hart offered and all but minced to a shady spot beneath a nearby tree.

“How came you by such a pretty prize?” A gap-toothed forester cast a measuring glance at the cat.

“By fair means. He was like to be killed by an angry beast tamer. And I own him not; he is a free animal and goes where he pleases.” Hart spoke with menace edging his voice.

“Peace, man! I was merely curious.” The forester answered hastily.

Lingering only long enough to cook his bit of meat, Hart joined the pard beside the oak. *No fear, Man-friend. Free-Claw not be caught again!* Licking his paws to carefully wash whiskers and face, the demi-pard exuded confidence. *Stay with Man-Friend. Him need.*

Hart raised his visible brow as the comment entered his thought. “I take that as an honor, Free-Claw. May we both never be caught! I think, though, that it would be wise for you to appear to be bound to me for now. There might be less trouble that way. The festival draws many who would think to fatten purse with the price you would bring.”

*Free-Claw no forget to watch again. Once trap, enough.*

“Yes, I doubt you volunteered to join that beast tamer.” Hart chuckled at the irony of such a thought.

*Brought from many far away. Trapper took mate, young. They die on journey.* Such desolation accompanied the thought message that Hart could have wept at the sense of loss.

“We share much, Free-Claw. Evil men took from me something too, though not a mate or child, simply my honor.” His words seemed wholly inadequate in the face of what the small pard had suffered.

“I have a question: how is it that I hear your thoughts?” Hart was not sure he should ask or that the pard could or would answer.

*Eye!* The bald, one word answer shook him.

“You mean, my left eye?”

*Green. Gift from Great Pard.* Free-Claw continued to groom himself.

“Great Pard? Who? Oh, is that your name for the Creator?” Intent on understanding the enigmatic statement, Hart waited.

*Yes, Great Pard make all.* The tone of the thought, if such could be said of the curious communication, was very like that Father Corbin had used to explain some truth to his young students.

“Ah, I see.” It did make absolute sense. The demi-pard would logically see the Creator in its image.

*We go?* Without waiting an answer, Free-Claw flicked the tip of his tail and set off toward the central parade ground. It was time to find a spot to view the tournament. Any sensible cat knew that!

Suppressing laughter at his companion’s behavior with an effort, Hart gladly joined him. The pull of the jousting field had been on him since awakening. As the man and pard threaded through the growing crowd to find a place from which to watch the posting of the lists, he indulged himself in recollection. He could smell the leather, feel the coolness of hauberk, helm, sword and shield; feel the surging muscles of a good horse between his knees. But, no! Hart was a full-time scrivener, scarcely a part-time mage, but no sword wearer. His mission was discovery, not knightly service with all its excitement and privilege.

The former knight and his new friend found a tree near the covered seats placed along the tournament ground for nobles. A lone branch extended well above one end of the jousting arena. While the cat scampered up to settle comfortably on a higher perch, Hart managed to reach a position on the broad limb, from which he could observe not only the matches, but also the audience.

He had scarcely taken up his position, when a herald bawled for attention, to announce the arrival of Lord Stormund, the Lady Arin, Norvill and various notable guests. Next came the reading of the lists of competitors, many of whom Hart knew well, having served with them or met them in the jousts.

Prominent in the lists was Sir Lazarous, Champion for Lord Stormund, who strutted his destrier to the roar of the approving crowd. His great silver helm bore, as its crest, a cockatrice with head and legs of a rooster and wings and body of a dragon. The same device was echoed on his shield and surcoat. Even the caparisoning of his horse was covered with representations of the mythic beast in vivid scarlet.

Following the Champion of Stamglen, several squires on foot bore his lances and battle pennon. One page, Hart had heard, was to be assigned as squire to Norvill upon his knighting. The smallest of the group, walked proudly, waving a banner. Why, it is the lad who nearly bowled me over, Hart thought as the boy passed a group of other squires waiting to take their turn in the parade, a well-aimed clot of muck was flung from their midst to land on his chest. As the missile slid down his front leaving behind a trail of filth, hoots of laughter exploded from the assembled squires and pages, who called out, “Ho, Sir Muddy, like you your new emblem?”

His face so red, it could have oozed blood, the lad nonetheless continued to march rigidly until he reached the far end of the arena and could retire. Feeling a stab of sympathy for the youth, Hart remembered the insults hurled against him in this very spot. It would do no harm to watch the lad closer, perhaps even speak a word of encouragement.

His attention returned to the arena below as trumpets sounded to herald the beginning of the jousting. Pair after pair of knights thundered at each other, lances leveled and helms shuttered. Sounds of splintering shafts accompanied thuds and grunts, even screams of pain as weapons occasionally aimed amiss and skewered a faceplate. Little by little the numbers of competitors shrunk until one pair remained: Sir Lazarous and a visiting knight from across the Narid Sea.

The stranger sat his huge steed easily as the herald bawled his pedigree. “Hear, hear! Now comes Sir Gheenor of Clotrund, Champion of Luse, Knight of the Storms! Know that he has bested a hundred score of challengers. All the Eastern Lands fear his prowess. Beware the Sword of Gheenor!” With each new degree, the knight, clad in black armor and checkered surcoat of black and white, pirouetted his horse and urged it to rear, delighting the crowd.

No need to employ his gifted eye to take the measure of this opponent, Hart was of the opinion that Sir Lazarous must needs look to his skills. He would be well matched. But as the joust began, the scrivener felt a dawning awareness. His Eye quivered and warmth began to radiate from beneath his cap where the headpiece rested. Lazarous was up to no good!

As the opponents met, however, Hart began to think the warning of his gifted sense unfounded, for neither of the knights seemed to gain an advantage. On first rush each shattered a lance on the opposite’s shield, but managed to stay a-horse. On the second pass, both struck true again and kept their seats.

By the third lance, it was clear that each man was tiring. It had been a long day and both had participated in many jousts. After a brief rest, they laid on again, this time meeting with such force that both tumbled from horseback. A shudder passed through the watchers as each knight lay for a few seconds. Would one fail to rise?

No, Sir Lazarous staggered to his feet just as did Sir Gheenor. Squires rushed to bring swords and bucklers in preparation for the next round. Warily the combatants paced in a circle, facing each other. Gheenor lunged and thrust; Lazarous parried and counter-thrust. Clearly they were both struggling for breath and strength to continue.

Once more Hart felt the—what—a hint of magic coming into play? Yes! On the next thrust, when Gheenor should have easily turned Lazarous’s sword, so awkward was the lunge, the foreign knight seemed to freeze in place. The weapon slipped in above his buckler and penetrated the one vulnerable spot where helm met hauberk, for, unlike many others, the Champion of Luse had scorned throat protection.

Like a great, felled oak, the knight in black armor toppled forward. Expecting to see a bloodless victory, the crowd fell strangely silent for a space, then as though prompted, broke into a ragged cheer for the Champion of Stamglen.

Attendants hurried to the fallen man with a stretcher, accompanied by the infirmarian of the Abby of St. Stam. Kneeling to examine the knight, he gravely shook his head, bidding the squires to cover his face. Sir Gheenor was dead.

Moving to break the mood of the moment, Lord Stormund dispatched his herald to announce the coming melee, which would take place in two hours following a break for food and refreshing. With that the people moved away, muttering quietly among themselves. It’s as if they too sensed evil, thought Hart.

*Much evil! Red killer bad man.* Free-Claw had the right of it. The pard had his own gifts, or at least a keen instinct for sizing up human kind.

“Indeed, he is, my friend. It is well to beware of the ‘red killer’.” Hart swung down from his perch on the oak limb. “Come, Free-Claw, we have some exploring to do.”

Thinking to locate Norvill’s squire-to-be, Hart made for the cluster of brightly colored tents that ringed the parade ground, but the lad was nowhere to be found. “That is strange,” he commented to the pard, “all the knights’ attendants should be here to help their lords make ready for the melee.

*Him need wash. Much dirty.*

“Of course! That was a nasty mess and smelly, I expect. He has probably ducked out to bathe in the stream below the meadow.” They would just have to find him later, but a vague prickle of apprehension disturbed Hart. The youngling was so like him in many ways, small for his age, the butt of much teasing by the older squires. The former knight could almost taste the bitterness of memory. He knew what the lad was feeling.

Man and pard turned back toward the vendors’ area. There would just be time enough to seek out Glodrun. Hart had a proposition for the jewel smith.

When they found him Glodrun was bent over his makeshift workbench tapping on a silver fitting. “Ah, we meet again, Scrivener. And what have you there? A fine beast, if I ever saw one.” The jewel smith’s glib greeting was not quite genuine. Hart easily recognized an undercurrent of apprehension.

“He is a demi-pard, but I did not come to discuss my companion. I have something you might find interesting.” Hart stood quietly while the man carefully arranged his tools and seemed to ponder the statement. Again it was clear to the young scrivener that the jewel smith was more than he appeared.

“So, what would you have to show me?” The heavily jowled man peered up at him.

“May we seek some privacy?” Hart made an effort not to appear furtive.

“Ah, of course!” Rising with much puffing, the smith led the way into a large tent at the back of his area. “Now what is this all about?”

Reaching into his pouch, Hart brought out a palm full of the golden gobbets he had taken from the strange brine pool creatures. At the sight of these, the craftsman let out a low whistle.

“May I examine them more closely?” He reached out a pudgy hand. Taking the gold almost reverently, he turned the pieces about, biting one of them in the age-old manner for trying the metal’s purity.

“It is genuine, Glodrun, you can be sure of that.” Hart was not about to be taken for a fool. Dealing with the likes of the jewel smith clearly required firmness, to say nothing of caution.

“Indeed, indeed! But where—no, I shan’t ask that. It is none of my affair. However, I would know how much of this precious metal you have for sale. You do wish to sell or you wouldn’t have come to me. It is obvious that you don’t need my assessment of the quality of your ‘commodity’.” A chuckle rumbled from the heavy man.

“Yes, I would like to sell a quantity of gold. I know well its value and wish to be paid in minted coin, not goods.” Hart stood with folded arms. He also had no intention of revealing how much more gold he possessed.

“Of course, of course. For this I am prepared to pay two guineas.” A calculating look easily gave away the man’s intent. There was no need to employ the Emerald Eye.

“Not likely.” Hart replied. “Three guineas and six shillings is my price. I do not haggle, nor will I abide dishonest dealing.”

“Yes, yes! You shall have your price, young man. Glodrun is honorable—never would I think to cheat you!” The be-ringed hands almost fluttered.

“Well enough. I will let you know if ever I have more to sell.” Taking the coins the smith handed them, the scrivener methodically counted them and put them into his pouch.

“Good day, Merchant. May your dealings always be so honest.” Hart made sure the jewel smith understood that he had some doubt as to the nature of the man’s usual transactions.

*Not make happy!* Free-Claw’s mental comment carried a definite tone of amusement.

“No, my four-legged friend, he would far rather have spent less and got more—gold and information.” Hart’s laugh rang out as he and the pard strolled toward the food vendors’ area. Both had acquired an appetite, since the morning meal was now but a dim memory.

After satisfying their hunger the former knight and his sleek black companion returned to the open parade ground and found a spot on a small knoll from which to observe the coming action. On either end of the area designated for combat, troops of knights were assembling.

One was led by Sir Lazarous and was comprised chiefly of knights with whom Hart had served. Opposing them was a gathering of outland knights from Gamlin, Tuckgrove and Rathermel; Hart could see by the arms displayed on pennons and surcoats. Scattered amongst them were a few plain shields, men without a lord, seeking to make a name and perhaps find service.

Cheers rose from the crowd that circled the field of honor as a single blast from a battle horn signaled the advance to combat. At once the earth began to tremble with the pounding of hundreds of hooves as the two forces hurtled toward each other. Meeting in the center with the clash of armor and weapons, the knights laid about them with abandon.

A surge of something akin to blood lust rose briefly inside Hart, but was immediately quenched by memory of the very real agony that accompanied such mock battles. Mock, they might be, but often they turned to genuine disasters. This one was bidding fair to be no exception. Screams of men and squeals from warhorses mingled with battle cries as the scene was near blotted out by the clouds of dust churned by plunging hooves. From time to time a riderless destrier would emerge from the melee, indicating that a hapless knight was down and probably trampled or worse.

As Hart’s exhilaration turned to distaste, he suddenly was struck with a shock of recognition. A blank shield he was watching seemed far too small for his equipage and mount. It was—no! Not the young “Sir Muddy”! He could not last many more seconds in that tumult. Even as the former knight gazed in horror, the youth’s sword and shield were knocked from his grasp, leaving him defenseless.

With a mental command to Free-Claw to seek out Hesta, Hart pounded down the knoll and snatched the dangling reins of a riderless warhorse. Vaulting easily into the saddle, he kneed the skittish stallion into the melee. Dodging and ducking the randomly aimed blows of the milling knights, he was very aware of his own vulnerability. Beneath his tunic lay no hauberk, no greaves on his legs and no helm upon his head, save the hidden Cap of Knowledge. He needed no special knowledge to warn that Death stalked him.

Pouring all his strength into controlling his mount, he inched toward the spot he had seen the helpless boy. Now Hart must bring his gifted eye into play, for it was well nigh impossible to penetrate the maze of dust, thrashing warriors and plunging horses. There! He caught sight of the youth just as he tumbled from his horse and disappeared into a forest of legs. Swinging low from one side of his mount as far as he dared, the former knight managed to snatch the youngster’s upraised hand, just before a huge destrier brought iron shod hooves down in a battle-plunge.

Tugging the slight form up to lie across the saddle in front of him, Hart pulled hard on the reins to spin his horse about. For a brief moment a small break opened before them and kicking the flanks of the now exhausted mount, he managed to squirt out of the tumult and reach safety.

His charge lay limply now, fainted either from fright, blood loss or likely both. Hart slipped from the saddle and found that his own knees were trembling as he led the animal and its burden to a nearby pavilion. He sent out a hopeful call, “Free-Claw! Are you near?”

*Near, Man-Friend. Healer with.* The calm confidence of the mental response went a long way toward reassuring him.

He lowered the unconscious page to a pallet under an awning just as Free-Claw and Hesta arrived, laden with a basket-full of pots. An ominous red stain was spreading rapidly over the youth’s unadorned surcoat. With Hart’s aid, the woman stripped the lad of his armor and garments, down to his drawers. Cluck-clucking, the herb woman quickly began to staunch the bleeding from a jagged wound in the boy’s side.

“It is a grave wound, Scrivener. There is only so much I can do for him. He needs greater help than I can offer, but I will do what I can.” With no further comment the tall woman bent to keep her word.

Knowing that he would only be in the way, Hart paced out of the pavilion feeling more helpless than he had in many months. Why would the boy attempt something so foolish? He knew the danger, the consequence of impersonating a knight. If he survived, he faced a very serious charge, one that could ruin his life! Suddenly anger burned and boiled up in Hart. The torment heaped upon the lad, which he had witnessed: this was at the root. They should be held accountable. But, even as the idea formed in his mind, he knew its futility. No, the only thing he could do was see that no one discovered what the boy had done. It was the least he could do to right a wrong.

 

 

 

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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.