Rusted Armor

By Andre Norton and Caroline Fike

Chapter Thirteen

Having had their night’s rest disturbed, Reeve and scrivener lingered abed beyond their custom and so reentered the Tuckgrove Road long after sunrise. Hart thought it was just as well, for Moklin had spoken true when he warned of the difficulties they would encounter. Great sections of the track were gouged away by streams that had swollen from heavy rainfall; however the waters had fortunately subsided and no longer added to the perils of passing that way.

Several times they were required to dismount and lead their horses over particularly dangerous spots where fair sized boulders and piles of storm wrack blocked the path. “I like this not,” Hart gazed about. “It looks a perfect place for outlaws. In fact, some of these piles of branches and such have the appearance of being placed by hands, not flood waters.”

“Aye, it would be well for the Manor Lords to send men to clear this away. No decent traveler can be sure of safety otherwise.” Moklin grunted as he thrust a stubborn log aside.

“Who is responsible for this road?” The scrivener tugged hard on his horse’s bridle to aid the animal over a tricky bit.

“It is shared by both Lord Stormund and Lord Mory, since the road serves both manors equally.” Having reached the end of the washout, the Reeve mounted and urged his horse into a swift trot. “Come, we must cover some leagues yet.”

As they came within site of Tuckgrove, a red haired lad scurried away from where he had been poking about in the edge of the forest. “We will be announced.” Moklin chuckled. “The Reeve of Stamglen is already known in these parts, so I venture there will be a welcome.”

True to his prediction, a small group of villeins had gathered at the edge of the village, some with baskets and others clasping squawking chickens.

“We bin waitin’ fur ye, Reeve.” A toothless man bobbed his head in greeting.

“Just so, Tofter Butts.” Moklin dismounted and motioned Hart to join him. “This is my scrivener. He will record your chevage and mind, he misses naught.”

“We be all ‘ere, save Cadver. ‘E run off when ‘e ‘eared ye wer comin’.” The man fidgeted as though he would be held responsible for the missing man.

“We’ll make note of that, Butts. You can tell Cadver for me, that if he does not bring or send his fee by Michaelmas, he will be fined at the next Hallmote. Cheaper it is to pay the chevage when due.”

“Oh, aye, Reeve! We knows tha’.” The assembled tofters pressed forward, anxious to present their various fees as Moklin called out each in turn. Hart carefully notated the name and what was paid.

When all had been completed to the Reeve’s satisfaction, the two men moved to a small cottage where they purchased pots of verjuice and some maslin before quitting the village. Both were anxious to pass the dangerous portion of the return trip well before the sunset could catch them away from safe haven.

As they neared the crossing of the Gamlin-Stamglen Road, Hart was suddenly reminded of the Herb Woman’s invitation. “…come to the montjoy on the Gamlin-Tuckgrove crossroad after moonset….” He turned in the saddle to address Moklin.

“Reeve, by your leave, I wish to bide in this area for a time. I—I have business with someone I met at the festival.” He knew the explanation sounded lame, but he could think of nothing better at the moment.

Moklin raised an eyebrow, but nodded. “As you wish, Hart. You have discharged your duty well these past few days. You are entitled to some time of your own.” With that the Reeve turned his horse, leading the pack animal, in the direction of Stamglen.

A little way further along the Tuckgrove Road stood what was scarcely more than a hovel, but an ale stake proclaimed it a place of welcome for travelers. Hart urged his tired horse toward the low building, where withes showed knobbily through the eroding daub surface. A wisp of smoke curled from the peak of roof sorely in need of fresh thatch. At least they will have ale and not that foul verjuice, he thought hopefully as he dismounted.

As the scrivener entered he had to catch his breath at the odors assailing him. No stranger to such, he swallowed hard and reached in his pouch for his own ale pot. At least he knew it would be clean and the malt that the alewife served him seemed clear and fresh. To his surprise it was some of the best he had tasted since returning to Stamglen. “My compliments, Alewife! This is truly fine ale.” He finished the pot full and held it out for a refill.

“Thank ‘ee, Sor. Tatsy tries to make it good. Be n’t much else to bring folk ‘eer to me place.” The woman grinned and poured more for him.

“Is there some place I can leave my horse for a few hours and find him safe when I return?” Hart looked about the smoky room, but saw that they were alone.

“Oh, aye. There be an old byre just at t’ edge o’ me plot. Ye can put ‘im there, but there ain’t no provender.” She looked expectantly at him.

“That will do. I have some feed for him.” Hart rose and, paying for his ale, gave the alewife an extra coin. “This is for the use of the byre and safe-keeping of my mount. Is there anyone who can keep an eye on him?”

“Me boy.” She nodded, turning to call out in a strident tone, “Tad! Come tak this man’s ‘orse and see ‘im safe in the byre.”

“An extra coin will be yours when I come for him.” Hart addressed the small boy who limped into the room at the call. The lad ducked his head and scrambled out to fetch the horse, the scrivener following close enough to hear him croon softly to the animal as he took hold of the bridle.

“There is fodder in the pack hanging from the saddle.” Hart called as boy and horse disappeared behind the hut.

Free-Claw, who had been off hunting again, quietly joined him as Hart drew his cloak more closely, to stride back to the crossroad. It would be full dark by the time he reached the montjoy but moonset would be still an hour or so off. Feeling in his pouch for the token Hesta had given him, he found it and enjoyed the slight fragrance that drifted from it as it responded to the warmth of his hand.

Reaching the montjoy, the scrivener stood for a few moments looking up at the miniature tower-like monument in the faint moonlight. He wondered briefly who had erected this ancient marker and what might be its significance, if any, beyond the marker for a crossroad. He remembered reading in one of Owlglass’s volumes that crossroads were known to be places of Power, but no touch of Talent was evident to his Gifted sense.

*Much Power, hide now.* Free-Claw’s evaluation made good logic. Not all Power was manifest until needed.

At length he sat on the wide pedestal of the montjoy and leaned back, appreciating the chance to relax after the hours of less than comfortable travel. When he dozed a bit, Hart was jerked alert by a distinct tingle in his headpiece. Free-Claw began a deep rumbling purr, definitely not a warning, however; someone was approaching.

The dense darkness that followed the setting of the moon covered the countryside, but Hart’s Emerald Eye clearly distinguished the form of a cowl-draped figure. As it drew closer he could see that the long robe covering the—man it must be, for it was too large by far to be feminine—was dark red, almost the color of old blood.

Wordlessly the man beckoned to him with an open palm. As Hart stood and looked closer, he could see a stone lying there, the mate to the one he held. The scent of both seemed to visibly intertwine and surround them. Turning, the red-cowled guide stepped from the road onto a hitherto unseen path that wound toward a distant copse.

Hart followed, his otherworldly senses growing more intensely alert with every step. He became vaguely aware of small animals thrusting their heads out of the surrounding thicket from time to time to watch them furtively, then disappear as quickly as they had appeared. After a brief walk, the two men entered the grove of trees and wended their way toward what was now a faintly flickering glow beneath a giant oak.

Drawing near, the Hart could see that the glow was emanating from a large stone that nestled beneath the venerable tree. Almost it seemed to undulate with a myriad of colors as four figures, cowled as was his guide, stood waiting behind it. He did not need their voiced greetings to recognize who was gathered, tiny Soorta, Owlglass with his wolf friend, Hesta and even Brother Belicaus!

“Welcome, Scrivener Hart!” Four voices joined as one.

“It is well that you chose to respond to my invitation.” Hesta stepped forward, throwing back her cowl as did each of the others.

“How could I refuse? Curiosity alone would have brought me.” Amusement tinted the younger man’s reply.

Turning to see who had been his guide, Hart felt a twinge of recognition, but took a moment to realize who was the tall fifth member of the Gathering of the Gifted.

“Yes, it is I, Ibed al Zahr.” The dusky skinned man bowed and executed his distinctive salute. His garb beneath the dark cowl hinted of the opulence of a successful merchant.

“The chapman! Of course. Now I remember you from the festival.” Hart bowed in return.

Gesturing all to take seats around the glowing stone, Hesta spoke. “We have called you here to add your Gift with ours, Scrivener Hart, because it would seem that grave need for the Power of Light has arisen.”

“Aye, lad, have you not sensed it?” Owlglass spoke for the first time. Did the wolf Softstep nod at his side?

*All sense.* Free-Claw added his thought and from the responses around the circle, Hart realized that he was not alone in receiving the message.

Soorta stood. “Each one here has a Gift of Power, all different from the others, but all vital. We have come because something is stirring, something of the Dark. Long have I ‘watched’ over this land. My Gift is ‘Seeing’ like the Sybil of old. I am, however, bound in what I may reveal from that ‘sight’. Often I know much of what is to come, be it grief or joy, loss or gain, death or life, but all that I can ‘see’ now is that a great evil is awaking. What think you, my friends? Have you sensed aught?”

As Soorta resumed her seat, Hesta took her place. “Something is gravely amiss. Never have I had such strange results in the employment of my herbs and simples. Those tried and tested remedies that have wrought cures and brought ease for time out of memory, now—they are somehow different. I am at a loss to know why. No longer can I be sure of the effect of a potion or a philter. For one who lives by such, I am afraid, not just for myself and my prosperity, but for those I serve. To bring harm when my sole purpose is to aid—is—unthinkable.” Overcome with the weight of her own words, the herb woman almost crumpled to her seat beside Owlglass.

The hermit rose in turn to give his report. “Long years have I moved freely about the wild lands, learning the secrets of what grows there, living peaceably with the beasts. Not so now. No longer can I be sure of my own safety. Were it not for Softstep here, I would not even have made the journey to this place. Fell beasts roam the forest, the like of which no one living has seen. Did I not have greater knowledge from the ancient records in my library—I would not recognize some of the creatures abroad in the wild. Yes, there is somewhat gravely wrong in the unseen fabric of our land!” Seeming almost to age before the eyes of the assembly, the rustic wanderer sat heavily on a mossy log.

A knot of cold fear coiled inside of Hart. What was happening? These people of Power had helped to make him what he now was. If they were so beset, what could he hope to accomplish, fronting the evil he knew dwelt in Stamglen?

Stepping forward now was Brother Belicaus. “It has been given me to assimilate for a time the ills and hurts of others that they might find healing. Like you, my friend,” he looked to Owlglass, “I have been staggered by the intensity of some deep disturbance in the souls and bodies of those I serve. Just the day gone, I was called to the bedside of a child, only to find that which had seized the little one was far too powerful for my Gift. Try as I might to delve into the source of its illness, I met with a wall of Darkness. The child died in my arms!” Shaking with silent sobs, the monk could say no more.

For long moments the group sat motionless, none speaking. The two Gifted beasts rose and paced about the circle, clearly joining in the pain of those united with the monk’s grief. Free-Claw moved to the monk’s side and laid a paw on his knee. In a rare display of compassion, the pard rasped a pink tongue along the tear-stained cheek.

Raising his head, Belicaus smiled. “Thank you, small one. You have ministered to me as I might to another in a time of need.”

Finally the chapman rose and cleared his throat, almost hesitant to speak. “I am not of this land, being come from a far country, but I too have a Gift. I bear the Touch that Tells, which came into play during my time at the festival. I happened to be in conversation with Sprell, the Cutler, when he asked my opinion of an object he had received on barter. I agreed to examine the thing, but soon came to regret that ever I had done so.

“Sprell drew out a slender leather sheath, no thicker than two finger widths. From it he drew a weapon of ancient craft, of that I was certain ere I had touched it. And, oh, when I dared take it in my hand—such evil as it nearly staggered me—flooded from the stiletto, for that is what I could see it was.

“With all the control I could muster, I carefully placed the wretched blade on the cutler’s bench and bent closer as though to examine it further. What had come to my Touch was all that I needed to know, however. A tool of the Dark, it was obviously designed to penetrate between the links of a knight’s mail, so slender it was. What was more, the hilt had been fashioned from the thumb bone of a prince of the Dark Arts; that hilt near writhed in my hold. I know not the name of the one whose bone it was, but never have I handled so evil an object. For something so old to bear still the force I sensed, it must indeed be truly in origin, most fell!” The chapman shuddered visibly at the memory.

He continued, “I gave some answer to Sprell about the great age of the piece, but said naught of its true character. Alerted, though, I made it my business to see what would become of the evil weapon. My suspicions were further roused when a furtive looking man approached the cutler later that evening and exchanged a fat purse for the slender instrument. I bid my servant watch my goods and slipped quietly after him to see where he was bound.

“I managed to follow him to the castle where he entered by the postern gate, seeming well known by the guard there. I slipped past the ramp to that gate and, approaching the wall of the castle, laid my hands thereon, seeking what knowledge I might gain. Little came to me in any detail, but the very real sense of a presence, deep within the bowels of Stamglen, gripped me with a fear I have not known since as a lad I was frightened by tales of demons and djinns. Sadly, this is no tale.” Great sweat beads stood on the dark skin of Ibed’s forehead. Hart knew well the touch of that sort of fear.

When the merchant from the East had resumed his place beneath the oak, Hesta spoke. “So, there we have it: nameless, faceless, evil forebodings, curious pollutions of healing herbs and potions, fell and fearsome beasts, ills that cannot be treated, weapons of the Dark. All point to a disturbance in the magical fabric that overlays this land, one that only those who are Gifted with Talent can detect. For this reason each of us in his or her own way has become aware, though only in part. But, come, Scrivener Hart, what have you to add to this? Surely that Gifted Eye of yours has revealed much as you move about Stamglen.” Hesta paused and all turned to gaze on him.

Hart stood to give account of what he had thus far observed, but somehow felt a confusion rise within himself as to the true nature and source of his suspicions. He felt his Eye drawn to Soorta and caught the slightest shake of her head. No, he thought, she does not wish me to speak yet of what I have seen. Instead, he searched for words to share his fears without revealing what he had seen in the vaults below the castle. “Yes, I too have been made aware of evil in many forms in Stamglen. I believe I may have found clues to the source, but can not say surely until I have opportunity to delve further.”

Hesta nodded. “That is well, Hart. We will give you that chance. Only do not take too much upon yourself. You are but newly come to your Gift and have yet much to learn of Power. Perhaps the most important lesson you will ever learn is that some battles must never be fought alone. To that purpose we will form this night a pact among us. If any one of us finds need, we will seek the others for their strength—the strength of the Gathering of the Gifted.” Having spoken thus, she reached hands out to those on either side of her. One by one Soorta, Owlglass, Belicaus, Ibed and Hart joined hands with Hesta around the glowing stone. The circle complete, two silent forms pushed in to join the bond, Softstep at Owlglass’s left and Free-Claw on Hart’s.

Soorta spoke, “By the Light we here do pledge our Gifts in readiness against all that is evil. We come together to confront the Dark, by any Power we posses. So say we all?”

As one the assembled ones answered, “So say we all!” And the growls of four-footed members echoed the words confirming the pact.

As the circle of clasped hands broke apart Owlglass raised his voice, “If need arise, as many as can come will meet again at this place. The signal will be carried by these our friends-in-fur.”

*We talk.* Free-Claw made it clear that he understood as the company made farewells and parted with much to think upon and a plan of action, though scarcely specific, still one that offered a measure of reassurance to each.

 

 

 

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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.