Rusted Armor

By Andre Norton and Caroline Fike

Chapter Twelve

Long moments of heavy silence hung between Hart and the monk. What response could he make to such a revelation? Almost the younger man felt the shock that had felled the old man. He waited for Belicaus to continue.

“I tried to break his fall and managed to grasp his shoulders before he could strike his head. No! I thought, let me not be the cause of more evil on this family! But, seeking for his life force, I found that he yet lived, but barely. I lifted the old man and put him on the bed at the far end of the room. Now I must needs exert my skill as never before. I could not allow this man to die! Much remained to pass between us—questions made and questions answered.

“At length he groaned and gazed up at me but not with the face of hatred I expected. ‘Pax? Pax, yes it is you. I see it now. But where have you been these many years? Why did you disappear that night?’

“I could only stare amazed. Could it be that he did not know? I shook my head, unable for a few moments to speak. ‘You know, sir, that I was greatly grieved when you chose my brother to wed your daughter.’ I began.”

“‘Aye, that is so.’ With effort the old man levered himself up. ‘But that was no reason to desert your family, your village and be as one dead to us!’

“‘Nay,’ I responded, ‘there is more. I should think you might have learned the true reason. Did not Klinda or Pudens ever speak—but no, they would not. Tell me this, old father, how went it for them during the time she was carrying? Did they seem happy?’

“‘Never more so,’ the old merchant gazed upward, seeming to search his memory. ‘Two young folk in love and joyfully awaiting their firstborn, how could they not be happy? But—wait, I have not thought of this in many years: while Klinda was lying-in, indeed as her life was slipping away, she bade me promise that should you ever return, I would give you a message. It seemed passing strange to me, but I took it for the rambling of a mind overwrought by what she was suffering.’

“I gripped the frail man’s hand and leaned close. ‘Tell me, by all that’s holy, what said she?’

“A spasm of coughing wracked the frail man and I realized he was not far from his final journey too. Oh, grant he will remember! Within me warred so much: fear and guilt, pity and a deep need to know.

“‘Sh—she said to tell you the last word you had heard her speak was no mistake. Then she made me promise to care for her poor babe.’

“Overcome with the remembered grief, the old man lay back on the bed. What could I say! The turmoil in me now was greater than any I had known since that cruel night. One thing was certain: I could not reveal to this dying man the full truth. Nothing would be served by such a confession. Let him think that my departure was from some hard word spoken or for—what? It scarce mattered now.

“At that moment the girl who was the very image of her mother burst in and, seeing her grandfather lying so, cried out and flung herself down beside his bed. ‘Papa, Papa!’ A wrinkled hand reached trembling to caress her flaming auburn hair.

“‘My Heart, my Brydwen, I must leave you now.’ Struggling for breath, he continued, ‘Here is someone sent by the angels to care for you.’

“‘Nooo—Papa, I want you!’ Burying her face against the thin chest, she battled to hold back the sobs.”

“‘Don’t cry, lass. This is your uncle, long lost to us. Once he was known as Pax; now you can see he has a new name, Brother Belicaus. Trust—him. He will—protect you.’”

“It had taken long tortuous moments to force those words and when finished, they proved the old merchant’s last. I stood stunned. Scarcely an hour gone, I had entered, bent on relieving myself of a past burden of guilt and now—? The servant woman had returned to take charge of the weeping girl, but I knew that ultimately I must take up a duty laid upon me as—an uncle?

“No! It would be as a father—? I knew! You see, the name Klinda whispered as she lay in my arms was ‘Pax’. She knew! Though I will never know what passed between husband and wife, it is likely that Pudens never knew, for she did not tell him. In so much she gave him one blessed happy year.”

Faltering, the monk covered his face and wept unashamed for several moments, then continued, “How better to atone than to devote myself for what remained of my life to this lovely girl, so bound to me, by blood, by a trust laid on me by her dying grandsire and by, yes, love.”

When at last the monk ceased speaking, he looked at Hart with an expression of near pleading. “So now, you know why I travel with the bard and why I would gladly give my life for her.”

Hart sat wordless for some time. So many thoughts tumbled through his mind, but finally one question rose paramount: “Brother, why? Why share this with me, who am little more than a stranger to you?”

The tall monk pondered the question, as if not an unexpected one. “I am not quite sure myself, friend, but having observed you these past few days, I sensed in you someone who has known grief and loss. Though I long ago confessed my sin and believe I have been forgiven, I have been haunted by the need to share the story with one who would understand. I could not tell Brydwen nor her grandfather; it would have served no good purpose. Somehow, now I feel I may put this all behind me and experience the healing of my soul that I have sought so long.”

A deep chord seemed to reverberate in the younger man. “Thank you, brother. It is a gift you have given me, one that I will keep safe. None shall know from me what you have told.”

“Well taken, lad. One thing more: as he who bears the sacred task of ensuring the welfare of one Brydwen, I know that I can not only entrust my story to you, but my loved one as well—if need be.” With that the monk rose and, saluting the former knight, turned back toward the village, leaving Hart to sort out conflicting thoughts and emotions.

Dusk had begun to lay a soft tint to the huddled tofts that fringed the vill when Free-Claw joined Hart. Together they returned to the house of the Reeve, ending the long and eventful day. Already deserted by the scores of festival-goers from the outlying manors, Under Stamglen seemed to have settled back into its sleepy customs.

What secrets lie beneath your calm, little town? Hart thought as he passed along the twisting street. He wasn’t sure he wanted to discover, but knew he had little choice. A task lay before him, not of his choosing, but one from which he would not shrink.

**********

The close of the festival required Hart’s return to his tasks as scrivener to Moklin. The Reeve was busily totaling the monies received from chapmen and venders when his assistant took his place to address a line of villeins waiting to pay routine fees owed the Lord of the Manor.

First in line and none too happy at being kept waiting, came Alif Miller to report the amount of his multure for the year thus far. As the miller called out the quantities of grain he had ground and the portion legally withheld for himself, Hart’s gift began to manifest. His Emerald Eye twitched once as he looked up.

“Miller, there is somewhat amiss with your accounts. I believe you have a mistake here.” The scrivener spoke quietly, not wishing to broadcast an accusation to others in the room.

“What!” The man fairly shouted, “Nay, this is the right of it. There is no mistake!”

“You affirm that the volume of rye was so?” Hart indicated the figure the miller had given. “And of wheat and barley, this much?” Again the he sought to give the blustering man a chance to correct the amount.

“Of course! Think you that I would cheat Lord Stormund?” Aggrieved self-assurance wrapped like a cloak about the miller.

“That is just what I think.” Hart returned even more quietly and in so doing loosed the full power of his Gifted Eye on the culprit, though he needed not to uncover it for so petty a thief.

Alif ceased to argue and would have been seen to go pale, had he not been already whitened from his milling. Streaks began to appear on his face where sweat trickled to wash away the flour dust. By now his odd behavior had caught the attention of all in the room, especially the Reeve.

“What passes?” Moklin asked, his brows arching.

“Ask the miller.” Hart replied.

“Well, Alif?” The Reeve pressed the fidgeting man.

“False accusation—he—argh!” Seeking to deny his false accounting, the miller was suddenly taken with a fit of choking. When he finally could catch his breath, he looked at Hart with an altogether different expression.

At length he ducked his head and spoke. “Reeve, the scrivener here has found a mistake in my account. I must return to my mill and correct it.” Spinning on his heel, the dust-coated man fled the room as though pursued.

The Reeve watched him depart then turned. “I venture to say you earned your keep today, Hart.” With that he resumed his own work and could be heard to chuckle softly.

Several more villeins made report to Hart, but others suddenly seemed seized by a need to postpone their business with the office of the Reeve. It was clear none cared to subject themselves to the scrutiny of this new scrivener.

When the morning’s accounts were completed, Moklin rose and moved to the desk where Hart sat. “I think it might be well for you to accompany me this afternoon. I ride out to take stock of the local virgators. Not all have fulfilled their obligation to Lord Stormund. Quit rents and chevage are due for third quarter by the end of this seven-day and we must make sure that none have defaulted or ‘forgotten’.” He winked and called to the widow who served as his housekeeper.

When they had eaten and packed provisions for two days’ trek about the Manor, Moklin and Hart mounted horses provided by the Lord of Stamglen for just such business. It took some coaxing and tight-reining to induce the steeds to accept Free-Claw, but the demi-pard was not about to be left behind. Passing through furrowed plots and into the open countryside, the Reeve spoke.

“On the morrow we cross over into the Manor of Lord Mory. Several of our villeins asked leave last quarter to take up plots in his vill of Tuckgrove. Seems there were a number of places emptied by a plague of summer ague three years gone, but to remain outside Lord Stormund’s Manor they must pay a small fee. I don’t want any thinkin’ they can slip off and conveniently neglect what they owe.”

“Is that why we lead an extra pack horse?” Hart had wondered at adding the animal, when they had small need of one to carry their supplies.

“Aye. Most pay with a capon or a ring or two of barley. Coin is scarce these days.” Moklin urged his mount to a pace more brisk. “We’d best pick it up. I’ve no desire to sleep on the ground, come night.”

“Nor I.” Hart readily agreed.

Stopping at several assarts that marked the western limit of the Manor of Stamglen, the officer and his scrivener had collected a respectable number of quarterly quit-rent fees when the early darkness began to descend. Still, they managed to reach a tiny inn that served the Tuckgrove Road. Fervently thankful to see the welcoming ale stake that beckoned them within, the two men saw to the stabling of their animals in a low byre behind the alehouse. The pard had melted into the surrounding woods bent on hunting. *Leave open window. Free-Claw join later.* The familiar, almost commanding, tone of the cat’s mind voice amused Hart.

A woman, clearly beyond her prime and stooped from years of labor in the fields, greeted them as they kicked the muck of the stable from their boots and ducked through the low door. “Welcome, Reeve! And who be this fellow?”

“Thanks, Mav. This is Hart, my new scrivener.” Moklin dropped the pack with his record sheets, quills and the few coins he had collected from the more affluent virgators they had visited.

“’Pears this is my lucky day,” the alewife wiped her brow with a stained apron. “The Ale Taster and Reeve visit m’ humble inn, all same day.”

“Well, at least I won’t have to report you to the Bailiff for trying to pass off un-tasted ale.” Moklin chuckled. “Not that I was worried. Your ale is ever predictable, if not the best.”

Mav aimed a mock cuff at the Reeve, who easily ducked it. “I s’pose you’ll be needing a room.”

“Aye, you don’t expect us to sleep in here, do you?” Hart was in hearty agreement with his employer’s answer. He glanced about the room, noticing a pair of shadowy figures seated in a far corner.

The hostess brought bowls of mutton stew and some hard bread that was surprisingly tasty. “Ye can tak’ the best room then.” At that the woman cackled loudly and returned to her kitchen.

“Best room? Only room, she means,” came Moklin’s dry comment.

When they had consumed the meal and gone to check once more on the horses, Hart and Moklin withdrew to the small guest room, reserved for just such patrons on business for the Lord of the Manor.

Tossing his blanket on a pile of rushes in one corner, Hart yawned and stretched. “I could sleep on a bed of nettles. Must be growing soft with so much account keeping.”

“You’ll toughen up a bit before we’ve done this circuit, lad.” The Reeve commented. “Road to Tuckgrove is no easy ride. I hear tell there were some washouts on St. John’s Day. Rained somethin’ fierce then.”

Before pulling his cloak about him and wrapping in the blanket, the scrivener remembered to unlatch the shuttered window for his feline companion. Sleep was not long in coming to both men, however, Hart roused slightly when the pard slipped silently into the room and nestled comfortably against him. A softly vibrating purr signaled that Free-Claw’s hunt had apparently been successful.

But an unbroken night’s rest was not to be for the two men and one cat. Some time had passed before the door to the lone guest room softly opened and a hooded figure eased across the threshold, bent on—thievery or worse. As the intruder stood quietly for a moment and gestured for another to follow, a night-dark missile launched itself at the foremost one. Blended cat- and man-screams brought both Reeve and scrivener to their feet, knives to hand, but further defense was unnecessary.

One man lay cowering while his companion dove through the open window and clattered away into the darkness, certain, without doubt, that no less than a demon had attacked. No demon, but one very self-satisfied pard perched on the chest of the trapped would-be thief and rested a paw against the man’s throat, a quartet of deadly claws unsheathed and at the ready.

“Get this cursed beast off me!” wailed the intruder. “I was only lookin’ for a place to sleep.”

“Likely tale. Looking for a bit of booty, rather.” Moklin struck flint and steel to light a candle and thrust it near the quivering man, seeking to identify him. Beneath his shaggy beard, four thin red lines oozed blood.

*Him bad! Hurt Free-Claw.* The pard knew all too well who this was.

“Yes! It’s the beast tamer, only he’s changed his gear. I’d know that ugly face anywhere.” Hart’s hand twitched on his silver knife. He admired Free-Claw’s restraint. Another finger’s breadth and the man would be beyond mercy. Obviously the churl had recognized Hart as the pard’s rescuer and was seeking revenge for the break-up of his vicious session at the festival ground.

“Seems I remember the Bailiff ran you off. I can’t prove your intent, so I’ll let you go, but take this as fair warning: show your face on the Stamglen Manor again and you will end up much the worse for it.” Moklin’s voice carried all the authority of his office and no small amount of personal animosity.

*Next time Free-Claw pay.* The pard backed, stiff-legged and all hackles up, allowing the brutish fellow to scramble to his feet.

I think he knows you would not withhold just revenge another time, Free-Claw. Hart’s thought message was for the cat alone.

Without a backward look, the beast tamer lurched out of the door and was heard stamping across the common room and out into the night.

“Do you reckon he learned his lesson?” Moklin pushed the door closed and dropped a bar across it, just in case the answer might be not to his liking.

“Who knows?” Hart also closed the shutter and likewise barred the window. There was no need to further chance interrupted sleep.

*Him gone this time. Big fear Free-Claw’s anger.* Self-assurance rang in the pard’s comment as it entered Hart’s thoughts.

Settling again to try and sleep for what remained of the night, Hart was heartily grateful for the sharp senses of the small pard, to say nothing of his sharp defenses.

 

 

 

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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.