Rusted Armor

By Andre Norton and Caroline Fike

Chapter Fourteen

Choosing not to return to the road until daylight, Hart bedded down for a few hours with Owlglass and Belicaus under the ancient oak. Hesta, Soorta and the chapman had elected to seek more comfortable accommodations at the inn near the crossroad, though the hour was late. Dawn revealed that the hermit and his wolf companion had melted away before first light, so Belicaus and Hart set out for the Stamglen Road together.

Retrieving Hart’s mount and purchasing a bit of bread and cheese to break their fast, they continued on foot, leading the horse and enjoying the peaceful countryside.

“What think you, Brother? Do we tread a path to peril?” Hart felt the need of the solemn monk’s encouragement. There was a quiet strength about the man that reassured the scrivener, just by his presence.

“Life is fraught with peril, my friend.” A slow smile played about the craggy features of the tall friar. “It is beyond question that we front Evil, Evil of which none of us has taken a true measure. We dare not face such alone!” He turned to gaze pointedly at Hart as though he knew the younger man might attempt just that.

“Well taken, Belicaus. I am not so brash as to think that I may engage the Powers of the Dark without aid.”

*Him Gifted, not stupid!* When Hart relayed Free-Claw’s comment both men laughed, glad for the lift in mood brought on by the pard’s humor.

“I hear that the lad you rescued has been moved to Hesta’s cottage. He is doing much better, but is still somewhat dazed by his close brush with death,” Belicaus said as they parted to go their different ways in the vill.

“Aye, she bid me to check on him later today.” Hart mounted the horse. “I will return this beast to Lord Stormund’s stable and stop by her place after sext. “’Til we meet again, God speed.”

“And you, young friend. Take care.” The tall friar strode off toward the priory. As Hart reined his horse toward the keep, Free-Claw bounded away, obviously intent on preceding him to the herb woman’s hut.

Pondering the previous day’s experiences, the scrivener rode slowly up the long incline to Castle Stamglen. What indeed had he gotten into? Never in his most unbridled imagination had Hart ever seen himself as he now was, an untutored would-be mage forced to deal with constantly emerging and changing Gifts, thrust into battles not of his choosing and worse, faced with an enemy whose Power he could scarcely fathom. Belicaus’s words of warning were well spoken, but would he even have the option of picking his time and place of confrontation? It was a probability gravely to be doubted.

Saluting the armsman on duty at the portal to the castle, he dismounted and led the horse to stable, being sure that it was fed, watered and rubbed down. Hart’s knightly training still governed many of his habits and care for his mount was paramount.

As he exited the precincts of the great keep, he glanced up toward one of the four tall watchtowers. All around him there was evidence of an almost siege mindset. Was Lord Stormund so fearful of attack? As far as Hart knew, there were no obvious threats from surrounding demesnes, nor was Stamglen at risk from sudden foreign invasion, being too far inland. It was just one more puzzle to add to his growing collection.

Reporting to Reeve Moklin, Hart helped himself to a jannock and a small mess of pulse prepared by Sal, the Reeve’s elderly housekeeper. He washed all down with a measure of metheglin, a rare treat provided by a neighboring beekeeper. The spiced mead drink, made from honey was a welcome change from the common ale.

When Hart indicated his intention to visit the Hesta’s young patient, Moklin reminded him, “It be time for the Hallmote on the morrow after terce. Best you check your records and be ready to give evidence then.”

“I will be ready,” Hart replied. He had prepared documents, but would review them in the morning before bringing charges on behalf of the Reeve.

The herb woman’s tiny cottage lay at the far north end of Under Stamglen where a tiny streamlet provided water for the carefully tended patch of garden that surrounded her dwelling. As Hart approached he noticed that others had arrived before him. An armsman stood just outside the open door and barely acknowledged the scrivener’s greeting as he entered.

Standing with feet spread apart, a tall sergeant was speaking gruffly, “Dereliction of duty, failure to present yourself for the knighting of your new lord: these be serious offenses, Page Dicken. Ye’ll not make rank of squire like that!” The man rhythmically slapped his high-topped boot with a short leather whip: a well understood threat.

Seated, cross-legged on a pallet near the hearth, the scrawny lad cringed. A low snarl could be heard from the dwarf pard lying curled against him. “I—I—”

Hesta reached a hand to the lad’s shoulder, hushing him. “He was injured, Sir.”

“Likely story!” The sergeant looked up as Hart pushed into the low-ceilinged room.

“True, though.” The scrivener spoke, allowing a bit of the force of his Gifted Eye to enhance his words. “I found him, kicked by a passing horse at the melee. If it were not for the ministrations of the herb woman here and Brother Belicaus, Sir Norvill would have no new squire at all!”

“Oh?” The officer bent to examine the youth more closely but thought better of it as Free-Claw’s growl was accompanied by a show of razor sharp claws, almost lazily extended. “Well, in that case, see that you report to the castle—”

“Just as soon as Hesta here feels he is ready to return to duty,” Hart finished the sergeant’s sentence and looked pointedly at the open door.

Ducking his head, the officer spun about and barking at the armsman without, strode off. Dicken expelled a shuddering breath as Hesta chuckled. “’Pears you handled that well.”

*Man friend good chaser!* Free-Claw’s talent for pithy comment almost unhinged Hart’s attempt to maintain a grave demeanor. Glancing at Hesta, who had obviously also caught the pard’s thought, he lost serious mien as both of them collapsed into gales of laughter.

The look of utter confusion on Dicken’s face brought them out of their fit of mirth. “It’s all right, lad. You need have no fear of punishment; your secret is safe with us. No one in authority will ever know what you really did at the melee.” Hart sat beside the boy and slipped an arm around the thin shoulders.

As understanding broke on the youngster, a look of awe akin to adoration spread across his face. “I—I’ll be ever in your debt, Sir! It was just—”

“Nay, lad, you need not explain. I was once the butt of cruel taunting long ago. I think I know why you acted so foolishly. There’s only so much a man can take.” Hart smiled down as the pard’s deep rumbling purr vibrated against the boy’s side as if to confirm the reassurance.

“Just remember this: you now have friends. Do not hesitate to seek us out, Hesta, Brother Belicaus or I will do aught we can to help you.”

*Free-Claw too!* The pard lifted his head to look into the boy’s face.

“Yes! Dicken, the pard is also your friend.” Hart conveyed the message.

A look of amazement diffused the youth’s expression, “I heard!”

“You heard?” Hart was delighted.

“Yes. His name is Free-Claw!” The boy quickly brushed a tear that trickled down unbidden.

“Indeed you did!” Turning to Hesta, Hart lifted his visible eyebrow. “That means—”

“Aye. It means Master Dicken, the Squire, is among the Gifted.” The herbalist smiled. “But Gifted or not, he needs more mending, so you two had best be off and let him rest now.”

As if to confirm the herb woman’s words, Dicken’s head slowly dropped to his chest and he made no protest when she gently pushed him to lie back on the pallet. With a quick flick of his raspy tongue on the lad’s cheek, Free-Claw bounded up to join Hart as the scrivener departed.

Up with daylight the next morning, Hart bathed, applied the beard remover Soorta had provided and donned a new tunic he had purchased at the festival. He would need to look his best as representative of the Reeve in the village court.

After breakfast of eggs and a bit of boiled bacon and jannock cake, Hart set about putting his accounts in order for the purpose of presenting them in evidence before the Hallmote. He would be giving testimony in the case of Alif Miller, who had somehow neglected to return and correct his multure account, among others. When satisfied that all was in readiness, he gathered up his scrolls and headed for the hall where the court would be held.

*Free-Claw come?* His furred companion questioned.

“Nay, friend. I think it best that you be elsewhere. Now might be a good time to go for a hunt. What say you?” Hart realized that the presence of the pard would cause no small stir in the court.

*Always ready hunt.* The pard flicked the tip of his long tail and was gone in a moment, with no more indication of his passing than the cawing complaints of a flock of rooks roosting in trees along the village common.

A procession of villeins and freemen was converging upon the village hall as Hart approached. It was little more than an oversized long house, with a higher roof than most and rows of benches and logs for seats. At one end of the single room a fire pit was arranged with kindling and wood for the soon-to-come cold season, though it was not yet needed. The opposite end boasted a low platform on which seats were arranged for the officers of the Hallmote and jurors, all chosen by the villeins from among their own ranks.

The accused ranged from those alleged to have committed Hamsoken to numerous violations of rules governing the making of ale. To Hart it was obvious that the one untaxed occupation, that of alewife, was simply compensated for by the many fines from a long list of inadequacies for which brewers were held responsible. One by one the women, who supplemented their living by making ale and barley malt, were paraded before the court and given their small fines, ranging from two or three pence to as much as ten or twelve for serious infringements. There was some protestation, as though it could make a difference, but for the most part the alewives appeared to take it as a normal part of doing business.

More serious complaints followed. Petter Webster stood forth to answer for Hamsoken upon Alewife Margot at the festival and, having meekly pled guilty, was fined the sum of two dozen eggs and a capon. One dozen eggs would go to the aggrieved woman and the remainder to the Lord of the Manor.

Never having been present at such a court, Hart realized as the morning progressed that it served a dual purpose, giving the villagers power over maintaining order and adding revenue to Lord Stormund’s demesne. All in all, it seemed a sensible process, though somewhat tedious.

At length his time came to present evidence against those he had caught cheating. Obviously the miller had thought to perhaps bluff his way through, but when once more fronted by Hart’s penetrating Gaze, he wilted and submitted to the fine with only some mumbling under his breath.

Next came Cadver of Tuckgrove, brought by two of the Bailiff’s men to give answer why he had not paid the chevage. When he tried to protest that he had done so, Hart stood and presented the court with his record of receipts taken on his trip with Reeve Moklin. Each time the new scrivener proved his worth, a murmur would pass through the room. Hart was not too sure he liked being the center of so much attention, but it was part of his duty and he must discharge that.

The final miscreant came before the court, a free holder, who had neglected paying his quitrent. When he began to complain, the Bailiff spoke up, “Gyll Freeman, it be best that you plead guilty and pay your fine, else you may find yourself put off your holding.”

Sputtering, the man shook his fist at the court, “Nay, nay, that canna be! I am entitled to that holding from my da and his da before ‘im.”

“Aye, there is some claim for that, but it is no excuse for not paying of your just tax. So says the Hallmote of Stamglen.” The chief juror smacked his open hand on the table before him, signaling the finality of the ruling. Calling for any more cases to be heard, he was about to adjourn the court when a disturbance at the door of the hall interrupted.

A man dressed in the rough garments of a sheepherder burst in, shaking his fist and shouting, “A crime! A crime! There be no justice when such can be done!”

The Bailiff rose and gestured to his men at the back of the room. Two burly armsmen seized the frantic man by his elbows and escorted him to the bench. “What is this about? Have you a charge to make before this court?”

“Aye, Sor. It’s me lad. ‘E’s bin ill used.” At that the angry man shuddered in silence.

“Well, say it. What has passed?”

“’E was only doin’ what is our right. Gatherin’ sticks in t’ forest and ‘e was set on by two fancy lords.” The shepherd stood more quietly now and turned to address the gathered villeins.

“All know the law. It’s no cause to treat ‘im so.” He spread his hands out as if to plead for help.

The Bailiff grew impatient. “Have done, man. What happened? This is no Royal Court in which to bring charge against the gentry, but I will hear your complaint—if you will spit it out!”

“Aye, Sor. They—that is the knights—they came on me boy and ‘is pup when they was in the forest gatherin’ firewood, just sticks, Sor! An—and—they grabbed ‘im.” The man paused for breath, struggling to control his emotion.

“They said ‘e were poachin’. And that weren’t the all o’ it. When ‘e tried to deny it, they beat ‘im. ‘E’s just a bit o’ a lad, Sor. ‘E lost two teeth from the blow and when ‘is pup tore after the man what struck ‘im, the great lord snatched the dog and broke ‘is leg right in front of me boy.” An angry growl echoed around the hall at the man’s words.

“Sor, they told th’ lad that ‘e best not be caught agin or they would break ‘is leg next time!” As he finished, the man stood defiant. “Bailiff, will ye no recite the law fer me? The law about the villein’s right to gather sticks for firewood?”

“Aye, shepherd. I will: it is a right, granted by the Lord of the Manor, that any and all bondmen and their families may forage the woodlands of his demesne for such deadfall wood as they may carry in their hands, with which to build fires upon their hearths and thereby warm them and cook their food.” A somber silence fell upon the Hallmote as the recitation was finished. All knew that a right, granted by the Lord of the Manor, had been abridged, but there was small chance of those guilty being brought to justice.

“I will bring the matter before the Marshall.” The Bailiff intoned, knowing that it would be a futile effort.

Hart knew too, as with a chill he recalled the dream in the cave. He had dreamed true. It was no nightmare, but a “seeing” sent to expose the depths of evil that was pervading the ranks of Lord Stormund’s knights. For men, sworn to uphold right and protect the innocent, to so callously treat a helpless boy—no matter that he was a poor shepherd’s child—this was beyond conscience. Did they enjoy tormenting the weak? Now that he had heard from the father’s lips the account, he was certain that his night vision revealed just that.

From the mutters and even open comments he heard as he left the hall, Hart realized something further: discontent within Lord Stormund’s demesne could prove yet another weapon of the Dark.

 

 

 

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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.