Rusted Armor

By Andre Norton and Caroline Fike

Chapter Eleven

While the noise of the melee still clashed from the parade ground behind the herb woman’s tent, Hart marched restlessly up and down, as if his sentinel steps might protect the injured lad’s tenuous hold on life. When Hesta joined him after far too long a period for his peace of mind, she seemed noticeably aged.

“He has lost a great deal of blood. What’s more, he has no will to live. It is as if a pall of hopelessness has settled on his soul.” The herbalist sat heavily on a stool. “I have only a small Gift for reading the inner recesses of a person’s mind, but it is evident that whatever prompted him to do so foolish a thing was somehow locked with a death wish.”

Feeling as though someone had plunged a weapon into his own gut, Hart blanched. “But he is so young! Surely his despair could not be that great.” However, as he spoke, the former knight knew that the woman had read true. Something must be done to reach the boy before he was entirely lost, mind, body and soul.

As Hesta rose to return to her patient, Hart felt the soft touch of his new companion at his side. *Good man help!*

“Who?” Hart was startled at the urgency of Free-Claw’s thought message.

*Man with music one.* The explanation carried a tinge of impatience, as if the pard grew exasperated at his friend’s denseness.

“Oh! You mean the monk Belicaus! But why do you think he can help?” The words were scarcely out of Hart’s mouth when the sleek cat flicked his tail and bounded off. The bemused man could do nothing but follow as the animal wove between knots of spectators along the fringe of the parade ground.

*Find gray man!* The thought bore an undeniable urgency. *Time short!*

Even as the message entered Hart’s mind, he spotted Brother Belicaus standing quietly some distance away from the press of people. He was clearly not engaged in the enjoyment of that violent sport. Head bowed, he seemed withdrawn inside of his voluminous cloak.

“Belicaus! Brother Belicaus!” Not quite sure how to make his request, the younger man hailed the monk. “We need your aid. A boy has been gravely hurt.”

Instantly the tall man responded, as though waiting for just such a summons. He snatched up a staff and pouch and followed Hart and the pard back to the herb woman’s tent.

“He’s near death, Brother. Hesta says he has no fight in him and seems to bent on leaving this life.” The words spilled out as they hastened through the grumbling crowd, which Belicaus elbowed aside none too gently.

“I will do what I may.” With this small assurance, the tall man ducked into the dingy space where the pale youth lay on a pallet. Beads of cold sweat had gathered on the boy’s brow and he seemed unconscious still. Hesta stepped aside with a soft sigh of relief.

Kneeling beside the lad, the monk gently passed his right hand over the bandage with which the herb woman had wrapped his wound, while resting his left hand on the boy’s forehead. Belicaus’s lips moved, but no sound issued until at length a subtle change became evident in both patient and care-giver. The pallor that had etched dark shadows across the youth’s face, subsided, giving way to a barely discernable glow.

In turn, the monk’s face now bore great drops of perspiration and his eyes seemed suddenly sunken in their sockets. His head bent nearly to his chest, as with obvious effort he rose to stand over the peacefully sleeping boy. “The crisis is past. He will live.”

Turning to leave, the tall man almost staggered and Hart noticed that he pressed his left hand to his own side as he ducked out of the enclosure.

“Brother, are you all right?” Hesta’s sharp glance missed nothing.

“Well enough.” The monk replied. “I need only rest.”

“Here, take this infusion of coolroot. It will help to restore your strength.” Pressing a small bottle into the weary healer’s hand, the herb woman watched him move away, a thoughtful expression on her face.

“He has a true Gift. Seldom have I seen one able to take to himself the ills of another with such power.” She spoke in a tone of genuine awe.

*Free-Claw know. Him good man.* Hart nodded in agreement and conveyed the sentiment to the herbalist.

“It would seem that the festival has been a magnet for many Gifted.” The tall woman responded. “Great need calls for great supply.”

With the young patient out of danger, the herb woman shooed Hart and the pard from her tent, declaring that quiet was what the lad needed most.

“I could do with a bit of quiet, myself.” Hart murmured ruefully. The day had more than fulfilled its promise of excitement. However, the sound of trumpets broke into his reflection, reminding him that the ceremony for which the festival had been planned was now about to begin. Rest and quiet would have to wait.

A herald bawled for all to witness the knighting of Norvill von Orstadt, of the House of Moorced. At the sound of the title, a tingle of memory stirred in the scrivener’s mind. Moorced—the House unrecorded! Hart thought of his fruitless search to locate Sir Lazarous’s credentials and knew that he must redouble his efforts to seek out the truth concerning the wily Champion.

By now the knights, who had survived the melee relatively unscathed, were assembling in mounted ranks on either side of a raised dais where Lord Stormund motioned Norvill to approach, with Sir Lazarous and Lady Arin standing on either side. The elderly nobleman directed the young man to kneel, then drawing his ornate sword from a jewel-encrusted sheath, bid the candidate swear to uphold the honor and purity of the rank upon which he was about to enter, before slowly tapping Norvill on each shoulder with the flat of the massive blade.

The Lord of Stamglen solemnly intoned: “By all the power that rests in me, I dub thee, Norvill von Orstadt, Knight of the Kingdom, servant of Light. Rise Sir Norvill!” As the words echoed round the parade ground, Hart all but cringed. How could any kin of the devious Champion truly serve the Light? But, perhaps he should not judge the youth by his relative. It remained to be seen whether the new knight would prove a good man and true.

Presenting Sir Norvill with a shield, Lazarous was the picture of a proud sponsor, while Lady Arin demurely strapped on the new knight a fine-tooled leather baldric from which hung a sheathed sword. Lord Stormund commanded a page to fasten spurs to the heels of the newest knight and, stepping back, lifted his hand, a signal for all assembled to raise a lusty cheer.

“Hail, Sir Norvill! Stamglen! Stamglen!”

As the shouts died away, Hart caught for a moment a flash of something in Lazarous’s look. Was it exultation or speculation? Perhaps both. A subtle warming of the former knight’s Cap of Knowledge meant that he had not misread that. This was but a further step in some complex plan—a plan that could mean only grief for the pawns in the Champion’s game.

One more ritual remained. For this the participants and witnesses trooped in an undulating line from the festival ground, through the village to the Abbey Church of St. Stam. There before Father Corman at the door of the sanctuary, the handfasting of Lady Arin of Gamlin to Sir Norvill von Orstadt culminated the three days of celebration. To most who observed, the bride-to-be was the very picture of happy maidenhood, but to Hart’s Gifted Eye, she presented quite a different appearance.

Evident to only the young scrivener was an aura of Darkness surrounding the couple and lapping at the very portal of the holy chapel. Hart fought rising bile in his throat at this revelation. He could watch no more. Twisting from the scene that appeared outwardly joyful, but was not, he strode through the milling crowd. Before many paces he found himself running as though hounded by Evil personified.

The insistent mind voice of Free-Claw finally brought Hart to himself, but not until he had entirely quit the village and reached a grove of trees fringing a stream on the western edge of Under Stamglen. *Man-friend, eat? Free-Claw want hunt.*

“Wha—oh, yes, my friend. It is high time for food. Go you and seek a meal. I will rest here. There is much I need to think on.” Dropping wearily beside a large willow that trailed its branches over the slow moving water, Hart rested his head in his hands. This was almost too much! How could he hope to thwart someone so evil as his old enemy? Who was he to think that he had power enough to combat the Dark?

Thoughts continued their downward spiral for Hart until a quiet tread broke into his moroseness. Looking up, he saw that the mysterious monk-healer, protector of the lovely bard, had followed him.

“Brother Belicaus! I—I didn’t expect—.” Hart stammered in sudden embarrassment at allowing himself to wallow in self-doubt. It felt as if the tall man could read his very soul. But, no, that was unfounded. The monk simply saw him tear out of the village and was showing concern.

“Scrivener, may I join you?” Not waiting for an invitation, the monk lowered himself to a large flat bolder edging the stream. For several long moments neither spoke.

“You are troubled by what has gone before this day.” It was a statement, not a question. Belicaus carefully unbuckled his sword belt, not the customary equipment for a man of the cloth, but useful when it came to providing safety to wandering young lady singers.

“Have I not a reason to be?” Hart could hear the bitterness tinge his own voice. “A fine lad is nearly killed trying to prove himself and put lie to his taunters.”

“Aye, that would have been a great tragedy.” The monk waited again.

“What’s more, I have been witness to things that have instilled a deep dread in me.” Fearing to give more detail, the former knight lapsed into silence.

“Methinks the time is ripe for a story.” With no more explanation than that, the monk dipped his hand into the clear stream, cupped some water, and when he had drunk, launched into an account that, for the time of the telling, quite drove Hart’s depression from him.

*******

The Monk’s Story

Many years ago two babes came in one birthing to a prosperous virgator, a cause for great rejoicing. How potent, how blessed was the man who sired such sons! Surely it was a good omen. This it proved to be, for in time the children grew into stout lads, inseparable and indeed quite valuable to their father, who put them to shepherding his flocks. Living far to the north, they must needs range the sheep across great high fells where dwelled many dangers, especially in lambing time.

The boys, named Pax and Pudens, grew in stature and never failed to turn heads when they returned to the vill for supplies and occasional refreshment. It was thus that one day in the year they reached majority that they happened to meet a newcomer. A merchant, once a citizen of the community, had returned from traveling far afield and determined to settle there again in his waning years. With him, to the eyes of the brothers, was a truly angelic vision: the merchant’s daughter Klinda.

Now the man, having collected spices, fabrics and finely wrought metal wares in many lands, promptly opened a small shop to serve the more affluent villeins. Being well aware of his daughter’s charm, he set her to minding the place for several hours each day. Before long, not surprisingly, the Shepherd brothers found reason as often as possible to visit the merchant’s place of business, usually one at a time, since the sheep must not be left untended.

Nor was it a cause for wonder that both young men fell totally in love with the fair Klinda. But, what of the maiden? The brothers were so alike, that it was hard even for their parents to tell them apart, let alone those outside the family. How could the lass make a choice between the two fine fellows?

As was the custom and still is, fathers decided upon whom to bestow their daughters’ hands in marriage, thus the merchant determined that Pudens (elder by some eight minutes) should be the lucky man. The wily businessman saw that the lad would be a fine mate for his cherished child, and the virgator recognized the benefit in uniting his family with so prosperous a house. What was more, Klinda was an only child.

Long so close, the two brothers suddenly found a wedge being forced between them, albeit a lovely one. Not given to anger, they never argued or fought, simply drew apart, having less and less conversation. Indeed, slipping away at every opportunity to pursue his love, the elder Pudens often left Pax alone to brood on the mountainside with none to share his misery but the bleating sheep.

The day came at last when banns were read followed later by the handfasting before the tiny village chapel. Joy was shared by all but one. The younger brother stood silently clenching his teeth as the words floated over the gathered witnesses to the happy event. In the heart of Pax dwelt no peace, only bitter disappointment—and a seed of a dark plan.

Who can say what happens to a young man thwarted in love? A sort of madness seemed to take hold of Pax. Brooding more and more on his loss, he decided to seek one moment of joy and revenge.

The day for the wedding was set to coincide with Candlemas. At a time when the flocks were safely in folds for the season of storms, folk were free to join the festivities. Alewives busily prepared for the bride ale, the brewing to be sold for the benefit of the happy couple. Klinda’s merchant father generously offered free spices to the village women who would prepare the wedding feast, while the bridegroom’s parents donated meat, cheese and bread. All was in readiness, including Pax’s plan.

Carefully secreting a sleeping potion acquired from a traveling herbalist, the younger brother waited for the right moment to slip it into the groom’s drinking horn. It would also cause a certain increase in the body’s flow of water, so he watched with pounding pulses as Pudens excused himself from the table to visit the privy.

Few noticed Pax leave right after his brother, the festivities having reached a peak with music, dancing and laughter filling the merchant’s greatroom where the wedding supper was progressing, to say nothing of the effects of great quantities of ale.

Lying in wait for Pudens to relieve himself, Pax silently slipped behind his now tottering brother and neatly enhanced the effects of the potion with a rap on the back of his head, not enough to injure, but sufficient to put him out for the purpose at hand.

Lifting the limp bridegroom, Pax easily carried his brother to an unused root cellar. There he divested Pudens of his wedding garments, exchanging them for his own. Leaving his slumbering brother he returned to the wedding feast with his plan well in hand, for none would know the difference.

Of the hours to follow, little detail need be given, save that Pax’s absence from the feast was briefly remarked and set down to loser’s pique. All knew that he had longed to be in Pudens’s place, to no avail. How near the truth was the opinion of the guests, only Pax knew.

When at last alone with Klinda, he lost himself in the moment. A lifetime of longing and loving must be folded into those few hours and Pax did this with all the emotion that had built in him for many months. Lying spent and in a conflict of fulfillment, guilt, and impending loss, he softly kissed the flower petal lips that were so near. The exquisite bride slept on his shoulder and murmured low in her contented slumber one word, a name, which pierced the pretender’s consciousness with all the force of a lightening bolt.

Suddenly the full weight of what he had done crashed in on Pax. Cautiously lifting the sleeping bride’s head from his embrace, he rose and snatched up the discarded clothing on the floor. “What have you done? What have you done!” The words thundered in his mind as he ducked out of the tiny cottage that was the virgator’s gift to his eldest son.

Snow had begun to fall and none were about so late in the night. Good! He hastened to the cellar where Pudens lay drugged. With hands that trembled almost uncontrollably he once more exchanged garments with his brother, then grunting, he lifted the weight that somehow seemed much heavier than before. Sweating despite the biting cold, he managed to reenter the cottage.

Stripping Pudens of clothing before entering the bed place, he gently lifted the cover, holding his breath in a spasm of fear, lest Klinda should awaken. But, spent from the consummation of the wedding night, she slumbered on, oblivious to the perfidy. With a final effort, Pax managed to roll his brother onto the low bed and pull the cover over him.

With one last grief-filled look at the love he had held in stolen embrace, Pax ducked out into the swirling snowy darkness, fleeing as if all the demons of the Dark were on his trail.

The monk paused in the telling of the tale, his face pale with recalling. It was obvious to Hart that this was no random story, but rather the personal experience of a man bedeviled by memory.

Taking up the thread again, the tall man continued. “Yes, my friend, you have the right of it. I, who am now called Brother Belicaus, was once Pax, brother to Pudens Shepherd. I will not trouble you with the account of the years I wandered trying to rid myself of the guilt of my crime, my sin.” A haunted expression passed like a fleeting shadow across the craggy features.

“I found no relief in any pursuit, whether of labor or war. Oh, I learned much, became skilled as a fighter, joining myself to a warring nobleman’s guard. My strength developed in the years of sheep herding served me well, but my heart was still troubled. It was not until I met a lay brother who told me of a remote abbey where men such as I could go and seek peace that my life took a different direction.

“As a final resort I went with him to see if it would hold true for me. For a time, it did. I found fulfillment in caring for sick and injured. It was then that my Gift became evident. In some small measure it helped, but never quite expelled the burden I carried.” The monk shifted his position and stared into the slow moving water of the stream.

“When I could bear it no more, I resolved to return to my village and suffer whatever consequences that might occur. I had to face those against whom I had done such wrong.”

At a lengthy pause, Hart ventured a question. “How many years had passed from the time of—of” he couldn’t quite put name to the event.

Belicaus scratched his chin and thought for a moment. “It would be nearly three hands of years. The journey from the mountain abbey to my childhood home took about a fortnight for, along the way I encountered a village in serious need of a healer. A bullock had run amok during one of the boon workdays, gored several men and trampled a young child. I did what I could, though some were too far-gone with wounds turned foul. It left me very weak and I had to rest for three days before resuming my travel.”

“I reached home—if it could yet be called that—just at dusk one evening in late summer. As I walked up the dusty street, a young lass bounded out of a door I remembered as belonging to the merchant’s shop. The shock I felt on seeing her was so great that it nearly undid me. It could not be—yet she was so like—Klinda!” A distant look lay on the monk’s face as he relived the moment.

“She hailed me brightly, ‘Brother, welcome! If you need lodging, rap on that door. My papa will gladly offer you food and shelter for the night.’ With that she hitched up her kirtle and darted down the street, calling over her shoulder, ‘Tell him Brydwen sent you!’”

“Brydwen!” Hart exclaimed, suddenly realizing that some pieces were falling into place making a clear picture.

“Yes,” Belicaus continued, “the same. I did as she had bid me, but my heart was near in my mouth when I knocked on the door. A stooped woman answered and peered up at me with rheumy eyes. When I repeated Brydwen’s message, she nodded and beckoned me to follow. Almost, I turned to run. Could I go through with this? Screwing up my courage I walked into the low ceiled room and approached a figure seated in the shadows, gazing out of an open window.”

“‘Yes, who is it?’ A much shrunken, but still recognizable figure turned face to me—Klinda’s father. I bowed and introduced myself as Brother Belicaus. I quailed at naming myself Pax in this house. He welcomed me and called for the servant woman to bring refreshment.

“When we had sat a while engaged in pleasant conversation, I ventured a question regarding the girl I had met on the street. ‘Brydwen is your granddaughter?’ I knew what the answer would be.

“‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘the image of her dear mother, my devoted daughter.’ A tear crept down his withered cheek.

“‘Your daughter?’ I struggled to keep the trembling within me from my voice.

“‘Late daughter. She died when Brydwen was born, victim of a flux.’”

“‘Wha—what of the child’s father?’ Now I could barely withhold the emotion that gripped me.

“‘Pudens? Why, he has been dead these fourteen years. Took a chill the night Brydwen was born. Didn’t seem to care for life when he lost Klinda. Even the babe could not draw him from Death’s clutch.’

“All the grief and guilt that had festered in me suddenly burst forth and I wept openly and long. ‘What ails you, Brother?’ The old man struggled to his feet and reached a quivering hand toward me.

“‘I am Pax’ I said. At that he dropped as though pole axed.”

 

 

 

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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.