Rusted Armor

By Andre Norton and Caroline Fike

Chapter Sixteen

Returning to the Reeve’s house, Hart was met by Sal who carefully repeated a message from her master, “Ye must off to Tucket on the Gamlin Road, where the winter folds be and shearin’ be done. There ye’ll find a man, named Vorden. He makes the parchment for Lor’ Stormund. Master needs a new stock for here and the castle.” Hart had scarcely heard the old woman put three words together before. He smiled at the lengthy speech and took a sack she held out to him.

“Tell him Sal sends these ‘taters. We ‘uz sweet on one ‘nother, long time ago.” The old woman cackled loudly as she returned to her chores.

Still smiling at the thought of just how very long ago it must have been that the Reeve’s servant had had a lover, Hart reached for a staff and set off for the Gamlin Road. There would be just enough time to reach his destination before dark, but he had no doubt that he might find lodging there for the night, in view of the gift he carried.

His errand took somewhat longer than Hart might have preferred, for Vorden insisted that he “bide a while and share a pot or two” the next morning. Fully as ancient as Sal, he was quite her opposite, full of tales of his youth. Hart leaned back against a bundle of hides that had been bound in preparation for delivery to the manor. Listening to the lonely old man was far from the most unpleasant task he had known.

Vorden sat cross-legged, scraping bits of flesh from the under side of a sheepskin. “Parchment be a forgivin’ thing. It be! Did ye know, lad, if ye make a blot, it’s a simple matter to scrap’ it off and start fresh?”

“Aye, Vorden. That was one of the first lessons I had from my teacher. No scrivener could well complete his work without that knowledge.” Hart well remembered hours in the cramped room above the priory at St. Stam with Father Corman watching over his shoulder as he labored at his letters and numbers.

When finally Hart neared home, soft mist had begun to rise from the stream that bounded the cultivated fields west of the village. Somewhere an owl greeted the coming night with a soulful cry. The scrivener fingered his latest find where it still lay beneath his cloak. A wand—mated to the Dhroghii stone—what history lay behind that curious discovery and who had so carefully concealed the objects in the deep-delved chamber? Questions tumbled one after another through his mind, causing him to start when a familiar mind voice broke through his musings.

*Man-friend! Healer calls. Big trouble!* Free-Claw’s message fairly crackled with urgency.

Where? Hart broke into a run. The demi-pard came into view near a toft at the edge of the upper common.

*Inside. Many sick.* Free-Claw ducked out of sight behind the low thatched building as Hart pounded after him.

The sight before him struck like a physical blow. Scattered across a small fenced enclosure that served to house the tofter’s animals lay several bodies, some deathly still, others writhing in the throes of obviously wrenching illness.

Brother Belicaus knelt beside a small boy who retched and groaned. The monk lay his hand on the sweat drenched forehead of the child, but before he could intervene with his Gift, the small form jerked violently and lay still. Tears mingled with the moisture on the boy’s face as the monk gently brushed his hand across it to close the eyes.

“Belicaus! What—?” Hart reeled at the stench that rose around him.

“I know not. But I fear the look of it.” Moving to another sufferer, the monk sadly shook his head. In moments the rest of the stricken joined the boy in the sleep of death.

Even as they began the task of gathering the bodies, cries echoed from several nearby dwellings. In panic, a woman ran toward the road screaming, “A plague! Mercy! A plague!”

A very un-monkly oath escaped Belicaus as he leaped to catch her. “Cease, woman! You will make it worse.” He managed to snag her garment and drew her to him, encircling her in his immense arms as she began to shake with violent sobs.

“Hart, fetch the Bailiff and I will do what I can here. It is clear that this is not the only toft to be stricken.” The tall monk absently stroked the frightened woman’s head.

“Aye. And I will send someone for the infirmarian.” Hart spun about and ran toward the castle, hoping desperately that the Bailiff had returned from his earlier errand.

Still clutching the almost forgotten bundle of parchments, Hart came to the barbican of Castle Stamglen, in time to see the great portcullis slam shut. Frightened villeins milled about him as they gathered in the only place they knew to seek aid.

From his left a villager spat out an oath. “Fine lot! Let us die like so many swine, no matter! But one of the high ‘n mighty falls to the sickness and look! They hide behind those great walls.”

“What, man? Has one of the nobles died too?” Hart grabbed the man’s tattered cloak.

“Oh, aye. Sir Keldwin came through the vill last evenin’. Stopped, friendly like, ‘n even took a drink at well from Presten. Now he be dead and we be shut out!” The bitterness twisted the villager’s face as he spoke.

“But, why?” Even as he asked the question, Hart knew the answer.

“Whoy? Whoy, ye say? I’ll tell ye whoy! I heered it from a scullion, what listened at door while the gret ones was talkin’. ‘E said there’s talk of ‘evil doin’s in t’village. What’s more ‘e heered Lor’ Stormund ‘isself say that the vill must be ‘cleansed’.”

“Cleansed?”

“Oh, aye. We can drop dead by the score, but let one of they even stub ‘is gret toe and we pay!” Shaking his fist at the closed and guarded portcullis, the villein stomped back over the bridge toward Under Stamglen.

Thwarted in his attempt to enter the castle, Hart turned back toward the village. Something didn’t fit. The deaths were so sudden. Even a plague took some time to develop. A prickling in his scalp under the Cap of Knowledge confirmed his thought that more was afoot than an evil humor bearing disease.

As he reached the village common it was clear that the mysterious sickness had swept the west side of Under Stamglen. A crowd had assembled, passing about words like “curse” and “plague” as fear stalked the gathering.

A thunder of hooves announced the approach of a small party from the castle, led by the Champion himself. Shouting above the din of the crowd, his herald called for quiet. “Oyez, Oyez! Give ear to the Marshall of Stamglen, Sir Lazarous of the House of Moorced!”

“People of Stamglen! A great and terrible evil has befallen us. By the order of Lord Stormund, know that this evil will be rooted out and destroyed! All who have any part in bringing upon Stamglen this vile plague shall suffer the retribution of Lord Stormund’s wrath. I, Marshall and Champion of Stamglen, will accomplish this, though my own life be at grave risk by coming in your midst. BEWARE!” Jerking the reins of his destrier to make it rear before the stunned people, Lazarous slowly swept his gaze over the gathering before spurring back to the castle.

From his position in the shadow of an old tree, Hart mulled over what he had just observed. More sure than ever that the ‘evil’ lay, not in Under Stamglen, but above, within the castle itself, he turned away to see what help he could offer. Though Lazarous had not seen him, he was somehow sure that the Marshall was not unaware of his presence—though yet unsure of what to make of that presence.

Father Corman and the infirmarian from the Abbey of St. Stam clearly had their hands full with the effort to reassure the frightened villeins. At the suggestion of the elderly priest, the crowd trudged away to offer prayers at the chapel. There was little else to be done, for full darkness had begun to descend and with it a measure of quiet.

Hart returned to his loft at day’s end, weary from the clutter of events, to spend a restless night, haunted by dreams of chambers that seemed to move and transform into yawning chasms peopled with writhing serpents having fiery eyes.

When at last dawn produced a watery light, the scrivener was almost relieved to face the very real horror of a mysterious killer. At least he would likely be dealing with an evil with substance, not shadow borne.

He found Brother Belicaus in the alehouse, sitting at a rough oak table with his head in his hands. Hart settled beside the big monk and asked, “What news?”

“Four more dead in the night and several more on the brink.” The deep voice echoed the despair of a healer unable to stop the inevitable.

“Are there any cases beyond the western edge of the common?” Hart felt a slight tingle in the Cap of Knowing that rested beneath his hood. “The cause must lie somewhere on that side of the vill.”

“Aye, but where? True, there have been no deaths outside the upper common area, but what does that tell us?” Discouragement hung like a pall over the monk.

“You are exhausted, Brother. Go and get some rest. I will take Free-Claw and visit the area. Perhaps something will give us a clue.” Hart tried to sound optimistic.

Hoping fervently that his Gifts would somehow manifest in the search for the mystery killer, he sent a mind call to his companion and set off for the scene of so much grief and death.

As he reached the west side of the common, he could see clots of mourners following pitiful bundles carried in a ragged procession, which wound its way toward the Abbey. Fearful of being further stricken, the people hastened to bury their dead.

*Much sad.* The pard at his side expressed, in his simple way, the profound response that Hart experienced as he watched the mourners.

Indeed it is, my friend. Life for these people is often bitter. To be faced with so sudden and painful a death is tragic in the extreme. Hart’s response was as much a personal musing as an answer to the cat’s comment.

From all quarters of Under Stamglen billowing smoke arose as frightened villeins put torch to bonfires of aromatic wood in hopes of warding off the feared plague. So thick was its pall that Hart choked and had to wrap the corner of his cloak over his face to lessen its intensity. Free-Claw spat in displeasure. *Men make die from choke, bad as sick. Why make smell?*

“Men think to drive away the sickness, my friend. It is thought that evil stink draws evil spirits but certain good or wholesome odors dispel them and attract the good.” Hart explained with slight conviction as to the truth of the theory.

*All stink evil in Free-Claw’s nose!* As if to emphasize his thought, the pard sneezed prodigiously.

From toft to toft, cottage to cottage, the pair passed without the slightest indication of what could have caused the occupants to suddenly sicken and die. Even as they walked, a keening wail arose, signaling that the dying was not yet over.

In those few dwellings yet untouched by death, braziers glowed as the occupants sprinkled whatever plague remedy they could afford. From the more affluent homes the scent of rosemary, juniper or incense wafted, while even the poorest of the poor managed to boil a pot of vinegar in hopes of dispelling the evil humor that had brought such horror upon the vill.

By noon, the late summer sun had taken its toll and Hart’s thirst propelled him to stop at an ancient well located at the southwest corner of the common, from which the tofters all took their water. He drew up a bucket-full and offered Free-Claw a drink.

The demi-pard lowered his head to lap with his raspy cat tongue and suddenly exploded into a hissing, spitting fit. *Bad—bad! Water poison!*

“Wha—? Poison?” Hart dropped the cup he had dipped into the bucket.

Bending over the edge of the stone enclosure, he peered into the depths, lifting his eye patch as he did so. “You’re right! There’s something in the water. I can sense it but not quite make it out. Quick, Free-Claw, fetch Brother Belicaus!”

The pard streaked away.

“And tell him to bring a rope!” Hart called as the cat disappeared like a black shadow before a blazing torch.

Hart straightened and restored his patch to its proper place. Warning off several women who had come to dip water from the well, he waited. Murmuring, the women backed off, but did not leave, curious at his insistence.

“Sor, what be it?” One old crone ventured a question.

“I am not yet sure. But it would be best to examine this well ‘ere anyone else drinks the water.” Hart responded, but would say no more as the women clustered around him trying to look down the shaft.

When at length Belicaus arrived, huffing slightly, Hart could see that Free-Claw had conveyed the situation quite well, for the monk had brought, not only a rope, but a crude ladder as well.

Tying the rope about his middle, the scrivener lowered the ladder into the water. Its top came to rest some distance below the rim of the well. With Belicaus anchoring the rope, he climbed over the edge and carefully swung down to the ladder. Hunching over so that no one above could see what he was doing, Hart once more flipped up his Gifted Eye cover and looked more closely into the depths.

There it was—clearly visible at the bottom of the well—the coiled body of a huge snake. Hart called out to Belicaus, “Tie off the rope, Brother, and see if you can find a staff or a crook. There is something I must snag from the water.”

The monk located a billhook and cautiously handed it down to Hart. Turning it gingerly, so as not to sever the carcass, the scrivener managed on the third try to catch the snake’s body and raise it out of the water.

“Here, take this and beware.” He passed the repulsive burden to Belicaus.

When safely out on dry land, Hart shooed the chattering women back to their homes with instructions to pass the word that no one must use the well.

“Do you think this is the source?” Belicaus placed the dead snake in a basket.

“Probably, but we can’t be sure. Me thinks it is time to consult Hesta.” Hart looked about for something to seal the well opening and located a broken half-door leaning against the fence of a nearby toft. Taking a piece of charred wood from a fire pit he drew a crude skull sign on the door in a warning all would recognize.

“This should discourage the curious for now. By the time those women get out the word, fear will do the rest.” Hart picked up the basket and headed back toward the village proper.

“Ooch! Ye did not touch it?” Hesta’s words came in a rush when she spied the carcass coiled in the basket.

“No. We took great care. Could this be the source of the deaths?” The scrivener waited as the Herb Woman examined the snake.

“Aye. There’s no question. I have not seen the like o’ it in many years. It is a vile creature.” Hesta turned the snake over with a stick.

“See the ridges on its belly? They are special poison sacks. Not only is the bite of this beast fatal, but the touch of it can bring a terrible death, to say nothing of drinking water contaminated by it. But there’s more. It is no natural creature.” She shuddered.

“Not natural. What do you mean?” Belicaus bent closer to the basket.

“It is a thing of the Dark. Only once in my life have I seen its like and then it was in the power of a wicked warlock. He took a common harmless snake and twisted it to use as a weapon. For this he was sorely punished, for the creature turned on him and he died a terrible death.”

“But how did this one come to be in the well on the common?” Hart asked of no one in particular.

“ How, indeed?” Hesta replied. “Whoever placed it there has Power, of that you can be sure.”

The thud of hooves and jingle of harness broke into their conversation as a party of livered armsmen drew up outside of the herb woman’s hut. A burly sergeant thumped his staff and announced with a loud voice, “Make way for Sir Lazarous, Marshall of Stamglen and Champion of Lord Stormund!”

*Where joust? Him no need way, him need quiet!* The demi-pard clearly was unimpressed by the unnecessary heralding.

It took all of Hart’s powers of self-control for a few moments to avoid a very awkward display of mirth as the officious Marshall dismounted and strutted to where Belicaus, Hesta and the pard stood beside the scrivener.

“Where is this ‘poison serpent’?” The tone of Sir Lazarous’s voice was scarcely less poisonous than the creature that lay in the basket.

“Here, sir.” Hesta thrust forward the container for inspection as the Marshall stopped abruptly and even backed up a pace. A murmur passed among the company of armsmen.

The pard’s voice echoed in Hart’s mind. *Him know something or him not very brave Champion.*

You may just have something there, Free-Claw. Hart responded silently.

“Just how do you know this is the cause of the deaths?” Sir Lazarous demanded.

The herb woman answered with quiet conviction, “I have witnessed just such a foul creature’s effect, Sir. It is deadly. Do but touch it and you will soon know it is the source of Stamglen’s woe.”

At her words, the sergeant lifted his staff as if to strike Hesta, “Speak not so to the Marshall, woman!”

But before he could bring the heavy cudgel down on her shoulders, Belicaus stepped between them. “Peace, Sergeant! The herbalist simply sought to explain the danger.”

“Well, get rid of the thing!” The Champion spat out and pointedly looked long and coolly at the assembled friends, especially Hart, before turning on his heel and gesturing for his horse to be brought up.

A deep chill passed over Hart as the men rode off toward the castle. He knew, full well, that his days of avoiding notice were now over. Word of his discovery and the delivering of Under Stamglen from further disaster had clearly spread abroad and drawn the attention of the one man he most wished to evade.

“Now, what do you suppose that was really all about?” Belicaus scratched his tonsured head in perplexity. “I don’t need a Gift to smell deceit. That was an act if ever I saw one!”

“Aye, the high and mighty Champion wasn’t the least bit surprised by that snake, nor did he care about the poor people who lost their lives because of it.” Hesta growled. “Strike me for insolence, would that pig of a sergeant?”

“Not while we be around, he won’t!” The monk chuckled.

*Him be plenty sorry, if do!* Free-Claw added, to the satisfaction of all who caught his thought message.

“What’s clear is that we must begin tracing this evil.” Hart indicated the contents of the basket. “But first, we need to dispose of it. Is there a way we can do this safely, Hesta?”

“Well, it will take more than just buryin’ the creature. We need help.” The herb woman stood for a moment, lost in memory.

Before she could speak, Hart snapped his fingers. “Soorta! She’ll know how to deal with the snake. I think we had better pay a visit to the Crone.”

“What’s more, she may help us seek the source. Whoever fashioned this evil is bound to have left some trace of the making of it.” The friar brightened at the suggestion.

“Why, Brother Belicaus, I believe you have something of the hound in you. You look happier than I’ve seen you in days, just at the thought of following a scent!” Hart laughed, relieved, too, at having a direction to take.

“I’ll be leavin’ the job to you two.” Hesta smiled. “I need to bide here and tend my herbs. What’s more the lad Dicken is not quite ready to return to the castle.”

“It would not do for all of us to suddenly disappear.” Hart mused. “No need to leave an open door for snoops, now that Lazarous is clearly suspicious, of me at least.”

*Him not only one! We sniff his trail!* The pard daintily proceeded to groom himself as if it were no strange thing to call in question the actions and motives of the Marshall of Stamglen and Champion of Lord Stormund.

Belicaus tucked a bit of rag over the carcass of the snake in the raged basket. “We’d best be off if we are to reach Kolroven before this corrupts and looses poisonous humors.”

 

 

 

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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.