Rusted Armor

By Andre Norton and Caroline Fike

Chapter Fifteen

There was nothing for it: Hart must find a reason to reenter the castle and continue his search for the source of the evil he sensed there. Pondering on this need, he turned about and returned to the village hall to seek out the Bailiff. He had an idea.

“Bailiff, is there aught I may do to assist you? Might I deliver records of the rulings of the Hallmote to the Steward? There is time, now that the end-of-year accounting is complete.” Hart spoke, trying not to sound too hopeful or to give away his anxiety to gain access to Stamglen.

“Hmm, in fact it would be well taken if you could do just that,” the Bailiff replied. “There is a report of wolfheads troubling travelers along the road to Coldbroke, south of here. I need to ride there right away, before the signs left by their raid have faded. So, it would serve me greatly for you to take these records to Attabirch.” He finished bundling the proceedings that had been duly recorded during the village court and handed them to the scrivener.

“I’ll see that they are safely delivered immediately.” Hart felt a surge of excitement and relief at the ease with which he had managed that.

Now to find a way to linger, once I reach the castle, he thought as he strode through the bustling village toward the looming walls of Castle Stamglen. As he passed, more than a few folk hailed him, but some merely stood and stared, not quite sure how to take this tall, hooded, one-eyed man with curious abilities.

How long before my enemy hears tales and comes looking? He drew the hood of his short cloak more closely about his face, knowing that it offered small protection against the growth of rumor. He must take greater care not to draw attention to himself, but it was difficult when so often his Gift demanded action.

When he reported to the Steward, Attabirch seemed heartily glad to see him. “Ah, Hart, the new scrivener! What have you there?”

“The records of fines levied at the Hallmote, Sir.” Hart pushed the roll across the table behind which the Steward sat. “Bailiff said he will bring the goods and monies later, but he had some urgent matter to attend to first.”

“My thanks. But tell me, how like you your new position? I have heard good reports from Moklin. You have a canny way of nosing out slip-shod dealings and catching cheats.”

Hart shifted his weight. The conversation was not going in the direction he desired. “I only seek to get to the truth, Steward. Guilty conscience does the rest.” He deliberately belittled himself, hoping sincerely that Attabirch had not discussed him with his superiors.

“Indeed, I am right pleased that you have come today, Hart,” the Steward appeared almost jolly. “I have a task that well suites you, I think.”

“Aye, Sir.” Hart stood quietly, wondering.

“Do you think Moklin would mind sparing you for a time?”

“Nay, Steward. The accounting is up to date and no work presses for the nonce.” Hart felt a near prickle under his Cap of Knowledge. This might be just the opportunity he sought.

“Good, then! The Manor stores have been drawn upon quite heavily in the past fortnight, what with the festival and all. I want you to go down to the storage vaults and take inventory. Winter is nigh and we may need to take in extra food supplies to compensate for what we ate so heartily at the feast.” Attabirch leaned back and patted his belly as if in recollection of the delights of food and wine.

“Right away, Steward.” Hart almost saluted, but not quite.

“You will find parchment, ink and quills yonder.” The Steward gestured toward a carved wooden chest in a niche under a window. “Just leave the results on my bench here when you are done, if I am not here. It should take you the rest of the day. Oh, and there are extra candles there too. You will need more than rush lights to do your recording.” Attabirch smiled and turned to speak with a waiting retainer.

Gathering what he needed to accomplish his task, Hart added two handfuls of candles to his pouch. He might just be even longer in the vaults than the Steward expected. Taking a light from a smoky rush torch in the long corridor that led to the kitchens, he found the stair that descended to the lowest level where the constant coolness helped keep stores fresh for long periods. He set about counting butts of wine and barrels of ale, salted meat and fish, as well as bins of grains used to make bread and porridge.

His stiff back told him just how long he had been at the task, even if Hart had not been able to tell the passage of time from the diminishing supply of candles. He had used three stubs to the very end by pressing each on top of a fresh candle until it burned completely down and was well into the fourth.

When at length able to roll up his completed parchment inventory and leave it at the bottom of the stair to the upper level, Hart stretched and considered his next move. Trying to recall the path he had taken while following Sir Lazarous’s furtive men and their prey, he moved down a long aisle of dusty casks. It should be thus and thus—if memory served.

Storage vaults rambled in a confusing maze and he would have been unsure of covering all of them had he not thought to drip a small amount of candle wax at the beginning of each section as he had entered to record its contents.

He turned to glance back the way he had come, trying to reconstruct the look of the place on that strange night, but nothing appeared quite the same. Odd, Hart thought, I don’t remember this section, but I know I must have come this way; there is no other!

Frustrated at his inability to locate the spot where he had watched the passage of the Lady Arin, he flipped up his Eye patch and held aloft the candle. Nothing but row upon row of casks met his gaze until—a quiver in his Gifted orb alerted him. Again, all was not what it appeared here. Approaching the end of a line of barrels, he fronted an apparently solid wall, only—it wavered!

Where there had appeared to be solid stone in front of him a moment before, now yawned a low-arched opening. Ducking to protect his head, he thrust his candle before him. Tiny rustlings told of small creatures scurrying away from the unwelcome light.

Stepping carefully now, for the paving underfoot was of roughly cobbled and rounded stones. Good thing I’m not a horse! Hart’s thought was punctuated by a painful twist of his foot that caused the scrivener to catch his breath. This was not a passage intended for much traffic but it definitely led somewhere.

Spiraling downward for a time the way grew noticeably more dank and moldy smelling. Funneled at last into a small chamber, Hart had to sweep away the work of countless ages of spiders at deft webbing to enter. The tiny room appeared to have been carved from the living stone with walls oozing runnels of moisture, indicating perhaps a spring or stream, or even the seepage of water from the well he knew had been dug deep from the inner bailey to supply the castle occupants in the event of siege.

In a shadowy corner of the curious chamber he could just make out several roughly hacked niches. In one rested the remains of a mallet with a crude, rusted chisel, such as might have been used when the chamber was carved in a time far distant. In another lay a length of wood, gnarled and twisted, possibly the stem from a long dead vine, he suspected.

As Hart peered more closely at the wood, he realized, with a thrill across his scalp and an answering twitch from his Gifted Eye, that this was no ordinary stick but a thing of Power! But what sort of power? Dared he touch it? Cautiously reaching out one hand to hover over it, with the other he drew the Dhroghii stone from its pocket in his eye patch, and passed it over the object, knowing it would reveal Dark magic if any existed here.

A soft green glow began faintly to emanate from the wood. Letting out the breath that he had unconsciously been holding, Hart shifted the stone to his left hand and gently touched the piece with his right. It felt vaguely warm and almost alive to his questing fingertips. He lifted it and rotated it, inspecting it more closely. What had seemed only the twists of natural growth were, in fact, finely enhanced whorls and carven symbols.

A sudden jerk of the rod matched by a throb of the Dhroghii gift brought the two together. Like reaching fingers, the twisted wood at one end of the wand stretched open until, with a snap, the small ovoid stone attached itself to the tip. As if guided by an unseen hand, tendrils of wood braided themselves around the pebble, so snugly that it seemed to have grown there. For long moments Hart merely stared at what now lay on his palm: a focus worthy of the most Powerful mage!

Daring finally to stretch forth the wand at arm’s length, the scrivener turned, step by step, to follow all the points of the compass as they formed in his mind. Reaching the final quadrant, a tiny beam of light from the entwined stone pierced the dusty shadows of the chamber to reveal another, deeper niche. There nestled inside, outlined in a greenish glow, lay what appeared to be a scrap of leather. As he brought his candle closer, careful not to drip wax, he could just make out vague markings on the leather. To his Emerald Eye they appeared to crawl, like the glistening trails left by tiny slugs. He touched the wand tip to the leather, grasping one edge to lift it for a better view. A map—but this is no place to examine it.

Hart tucked the map into his pouch, having shaken some of the dust from its ancient surface and slipped the wand under the belt of his tunic, taking care to hide it behind his back. Whoever had formed this chamber and left the instrument of Power, must have stored this for some secret purpose. What was more, the mage, for mage it surely had been, had obviously gone to great lengths to conceal the existence of the hiding place. He did not think that purpose was evil, for nothing of the tiny room spoke of the Dark, though deeply shadowed by its location so far beneath the castle environs.

He dared not attempt to further examine the map here, for it would need great care to avoid damage, so, drawing his cloak over both pouch and wand and taking one more look about the hiding place, Hart turned to retrace his steps. He had not found what he sought, but perhaps something far more important.

No one was about when he reached the Steward’s office, so he left the inventory scroll as instructed. It became evident as Hart left the area, however, why it was so empty at a time when there usually was a flurry of activity to complete the duties of the day before the call to vespers. Stepping out into the pale sunlight of the late autumn afternoon, he could hear a murmur of voices coming from the direction of the portcullis.

A small troupe of armsmen and about a dozen mounted knights milled about an ornate coach. A woman’s voice could be heard protesting, “But, my Lord, I would far rather ride a-horse than have my bones rattled in this thing!”

Hart moved quietly closer to the gathering, his curiosity piqued. Lord Stormund stood, feet spread apart and hands on his hips in a posture of determined, but obviously diminished authority. Standing beside the coach, which, though beautifully painted and fitted with fine cushions within, appeared likely indeed to offer only the look of comfort. Large wheels attached to its belly by heavy straight axels would do nothing to soften the jarring of the rutted roads Hart knew thereabout.

Even more determined than her guardian, the Lady Arin looked up at a knight already mounted and obviously as anxious to move as his fellows. “Sir Norvill, by your care for me, make him understand!” She stamped her foot and thrust out her jaw, almost over-setting her tall headdress.

The hapless knight shrugged and looked at Lord Stormund in mute appeal. The elderly nobleman appeared about to explode. “Ladies of my household do not sally forth astride horses! They ride in the manner suited to their station.”

“Even if it brings them great discomfort, my Lord?” The young woman’s tactic appeared to change. “I should be ever so much safer riding with the men, cloaked and not bringing such attention to myself.”

The Lord of Stamglen seemed to consider her words and she continued to press her advantage. “You know how good a horsewoman I am, Sir. I can handle any destrier in your stable.”

“Aye, Lass, I’ll give you that.” The old man seemed to sag. She had him. “But what about your wardrobe and your attendants?”

“They can follow on the morrow with a cart. I have instructed my maid to place only what I need for the road to Gamlin on yonder pack animal. Besides, at my brother’s home I will have need of little. His wife and I are of a size and she will gladly share with me the while I visit. I am not going to Court, after all. That is for Norvill here. Why doesn’t he ride in the coach? It would impress the courtiers to see him arrive in such splendor.” By now her words had taken on a decided edge.

The look of horror that passed over Norvill’s face, at the thought of having to travel the long miles to the High Court in Lord Stormund’s carriage, quite finished the argument. Arin had made her point, several times and with increasing effect. Hart could surely see her reasoning and it was obvious that all assembled could as well.

At a barked order from the elderly Lord, the carriage was taken away and a horse was hastily brought forward for the Lady. Stepping on a mounting block, she lightly settled in the saddle, her voluminous skirts flowing across the animal’s sides and rump. A catch came in Hart’s throat as he remembered the day, so many months ago, when that lovely horsewoman had swept past the broken knight lying dazed in a forest glen.

Truly this was a woman of mystery; so many unanswered questions swarmed about her like gnats around rotting fruit. Hart stood, hooded and unnoticed, watching the party spur their mounts to clatter across the drawbridge with plumes fluttering, arms clanking against hauberks and greaves, as armsmen thudded behind on foot.

Why would the maiden Arin be party to the injustice wreaked upon him? What power did Sir Lazarous hold over her? How could she change so drastically from almost one moment to the next? Somehow Hart knew that when these questions were answered he would find the source of the evil that had begun to infect Stamglen.

At least she is away from my enemy for now. Hart thought as he followed the departing party some time later. Long would be his reach if he could touch her in Gamlin! But even as the idea passed through his mind, he realized that the Dark knew few boundaries and distance might mean little in the battle for Light.

 

 

 

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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.