Rusted Armor

By Andre Norton and Caroline Fike

Chapter Seventeen

Pausing only to fetch a chunk of bread, some cheese and a flask of water for the trail, Hart joined the monk at the edge of the vill, calling to the pard to join them. Pushing the pace hard, the three reached the crone’s vale by sunset the second day. The tiny woman stood at the entry to the barrow, clearly expecting them. Wordlessly she beckoned them to follow her to a great flat stone some distance from the opening of the ancient burial cave.

The expanse of rock seemed to glow under the dying rays of sunlight, giving it the look of a myriad colors appearing almost to undulate and writhe before the eyes of the two men as they placed their burden on the stone.

“Step back and behold.” Soorta stretched her hands wide and brought palms together with a sharp slap that echoed in a thunderous explosion. A flash of light momentarily blinded monk and scrivener. When their ears and eyes had recovered, nothing remained of basket or snake but a dark smudge on the rock.

*No more poison.* The pard’s flat statement restored a measure of reality to the scene.

“Aye, Free-Claw, that is one weapon of the Dark that has lost its edge.” Hart smiled and bowed toward the Crone of Kolroven. “Lady, our thanks. I need not tell you what has passed, do I?”

“Nay, I have been at watch. The Evil grows more bold.”

“But whence comes it, Soorta?” Belicaus posed the question that had been gnawing them all.

“It is not given me to reveal, but the time has come for our scrivener to look once more into the Pool of Knowing.” Soorta gestured toward the stone basin.

Feeling a cold clutch at his vitals, Hart nodded and strode before the seeress to the pool. Throwing back his hood and removing his eye patch, he knelt to gaze into the mist-shrouded water. A warmth at his side drew his hand to the wand hidden in his belt. Withdrawing it he slowly passed the gnarled length of wood over the basin. A glow began from deep within the pool, to be answered by the Dhroghii stone nestled in the wand tip. One after another, in rapid succession, a series of figures formed and faded before Hart’s eyes.

When at length he lifted his head, a great wave of weariness swept over him and he would have slumped to the stone ledge beside the pool, but Brother Belicaus swiftly grasped him, lifting him bodily with no more effort than had Hart been a small child. Scarcely aware of being carried, the scrivener gave himself to enveloping darkness, thinking as he slipped into sleep, It is far worse than ever I could have thought—Arin, Lord Stormund—all in the Shadow! The Dark draws near.

As if from a great distance, the cry reached him, “Haarrtt! Help me!” Clawing his way through the blackness that seemed to carry the accumulated weight of the world’s grief and pain, he thrashed about, grasping for a handhold that would aid his escape from—

“Have a care, lad! You are safe.” Suddenly the warm glow of Soorta’s hearth and the scent of herbs brewing in a great kettle broke through to the struggling man.

“Wha—oh, Brother Belicaus! It was—a dream.” Beads of sweat glistened on the scrivener’s face as he shook his head to clear it of the dregs of the nightmarish scene he had fronted but moments before.

“Here, take a sip of this possett. You look as if the very Hound of Hades were snapping at your heels.” The monk handed Hart a cup.

The younger man took a deep draught of the warm liquid and nodded his thanks. “It was more than just a bad dream. I heard a call—”

Jumping to his feet, Hart suddenly blanched as recognition dawned on him. “It was Brydwen! She’s in danger, Belicaus. I know it!”

“Brydwen? But how can that be? She is with the Lord Stormund this very hour. There was to be a fete in honor of Lord Stegward’s visit. She told me that not two days ago.” The tall monk looked at Hart with growing concern on his rugged face.

“I only know what I heard. It was her voice.” Hart insisted. “What’s more, the things I saw in the Pool made me realize that Lord Stormund is all but fully controlled by Evil now. There’s a weaving of the Dark in Castle Stamglen and it grows more powerful by the hour!”

“Then we must hasten back.” Rising to his feet, the monk bowed toward the diminutive woman who sat calmly listening to their conversation.

“Our thanks, Lady, for your help. Have you any further counsel for us?”

“Only this, friar: have a care. Make very sure of your enemy before you seek to stand against him.” Her answer was to Belicaus, but Soorta looked pointedly at Hart as she spoke.

“Aye, Lady! We will be cautious. I think now to return to Under Stamglen and examine the map and chart of the castle precincts that I discovered there.” Hart reached for the wand that lay on Soorta’s table and made to tuck it in his belt.

“Don’t think that, because you now hold a Thing of Power, that you are ready to wield it! A wand does not make a mage.” The tiny woman’s warning lingered in Hart’s ears as he and the monk ducked out of the low door to begin their trek back to Stamglen. Indeed, the young man thought, none is more aware than I, just how unready I am!

*Man friend make ready!* A simple confidence penetrated Hart’s consciousness as the demi-pard moved to nudge his leg.

“My thanks, Free-Claw! That is just what I will seek to do.” With that the trio plunged into the cleft leading from the Vale of Kolroven, bent on learning all they could of their enemy.

As they walked, Hart spoke what was uppermost in his mind, “Brother, think you the cry I heard in my dream was of the now, or was it a ‘seeing’ of something yet to come?”

“That I cannot tell, lad, but this I know: we must gird on caution like a war belt and never be found to lay it aside.” The monk’s voice dropped low with the weight of his concern.

“Aye, there can be no letting down. Will you visit the castle to see for yourself that Brydwen is yet safe?” Hart felt fear clutch his heart. What could he do? Drag the bard away from her post at Stamglen? She would likely resist, causing a scene that would only draw more unwanted attention to him.

“There should be no trouble to find a reason to visit the lass. After all, Lord Stormund knows that I am her protector. He would expect me to wish to see her.” The simple logic of the monk somehow comforted Hart. “Rest easy, I will watch as best I can. Perhaps I may discern the way the wind blows in the affairs of the castle.”

“Yes! Listen and learn, brother. It will go far to arm us for what I feel lies ahead.” Hart quickened his pace, intent on closeting himself with what he had discovered in the bowels of Stamglen.

But the scrivener met with the frustration of a mound of work awaiting when he reached the Reeve’s house. A bundle of tally sticks lay on his workbench beside a fresh roll of parchment. Clearly it was time to resume earning his keep.

When at length he could climb to his loft, the shadows of night made any study of the ancient charts difficult, but Hart drew out some of the candles he had hoarded against just such a time. Hours dragged by as he bent low over the ancient documents, attempting to decipher their meaning. To his Emerald Eye the parchment, containing the outline of the castle floor plan, was overlaid by a clouding, as though he viewed it through muddy water. Why couldn’t he penetrate this? The Gift he possessed was supposed to overcome such glamours.

Rubbing both eyes, Hart lit another candle and spread out the leather map, thinking he might have better success with it. Instead, he wearily met with even greater frustration. The closer he examined the faint outlines, the more his mind reeled and his very body rebelled, until almost sick with nausea he had to admit defeat for the night.    

Crawling exhausted onto his straw pallet, Hart lay for a long time rehearsing the events of the past fortnight. No answers presented themselves, only more questions: what scheme lay behind the curious, nay, frightening events he had witnessed? Moreover, how could he, only an infant in his Gifts, front the Dark Power that seemed to be taking shape in Stamglen?

Finally losing consciousness, but hardly resting, Hart awoke to a thundering headache and the feeling as if his limbs were laden with great chains.

“What ho, lad? Linger too long in your cups?” Reeve Moklin’s comment took a moment to pierce Hart’s consciousness as he stumbled down the ladder from his loft. Tucked carefully under his arm were the charts he had carefully wrapped in an old cloak.

“Would it were only that, sir. I know not what ails me.” Hart poured a cup of ale from the pipkin that Moklin’s housekeeper kept filled on a shelf.

“Well, you have caught up your work, scrivener, so the day is yours. Use it as you see fit.” The Reeve nodded and walked to the door. “I’m away on an errand for the Bailiff.”

“My thanks, Reeve. There is a bit of study I would do.” Hart forced himself to eat a bit of cheese and cold meat, though his stomach rebelled, then sat at his bench. Spreading out the scroll and leathern map, he bent over them, daring to slip up his Eye patch, since he was finally alone. There must be some way to break through the secrets that lay so tantalizingly beneath his hand.

The wand! Hart thought and stepping to the door to assure himself that no one would come in to disturb him, he drew the ancient wooden rod from his belt to pass it over the scroll. The reaction of the tool of Power was so violent, that he nearly dropped it. Writhing in his grasp, as if to avoid the surface beneath it, the slender wand almost bent double.

Again a wave of nausea swept over Hart as he fought to control himself. Clearly this was not working! Thinking to take a different tack, he replaced the wand in his belt and took up a quill. Dipping it into his inkpot, he thought for a few moments before setting down a list of what he knew thus far. With his mind in such turmoil and his body in full rebellion, perhaps an orderly arranging of facts might help to give him some direction.

The longer he sat, the harder it became for the scrivener even to guide the quill across his bit of parchment. He finally gave up, to scoop a handful of sand from the container on his bench, scattering it over the inked words to blot them. Tipping the excess back into its box, he rolled the list in a tight curl and tucked it into his pouch.

Hart carefully returned the documents to a hidden crack in the beam above his pallet in the loft. It would not do for them to fall into the wrong hands. As an extra measure of safety, he passed the wand across the crack and visualized a cobweb to cover it. To his considerable surprise, a fat spider crawled from one end of the crack and proceeded to spin its web.

My thanks, small friend! The scrivener chuckled, not quite sure that his need had called forth the tiny creature, but grateful, nonetheless.

Calling to the pard, Hart reached for his cloak and strode out into the street. More than anything, he needed to clear his head and the Reeve’s workroom was not the place to accomplish that.

*Where go?* Free-Claw bounded to Hart’s side with all the energy that his companion seemed to lack.

“Anywhere, just away.” Hart replied.

*Hunt?* The demi-pard’s mind voice bore all the hopefulness he could pack into the thought.

“Perhaps.” Hart couldn’t help smiling. The small cat looked up at him with eyes that fairly gleamed with anticipation.

“Yes, all right. We will take the path to the wild lands just beyond the vill. But, have a care what you take. I don’t know if the lord of the manor would approve your feeding on his game.” Hart grinned, feeling better already.

*Him thank Free-Claw to take gore-rats. They pests.*

“That he would. Those beasts play havoc with the crop and it is near to harvest time. The ripening grain is drawing them.” Hart turned to the south, settling into a lengthy stride, glad to feel the warmth of the afternoon sun, tempered by a soft stirring breeze. As the man and cat passed from the village, several tofters waved and called greetings.

*Them friend now.* The pard noted, aware of the lightening of Hart’s mood.

“Aye, and it is in no small part, due to your finding the poisoned water and saving them from a painful death.” Hart hastened to give the cat credit for his part in solving the mystery plague.

*WE save.*

“Ummm. Make a team, don’t we?” The man responded as the pard suddenly perked up his ears and darted off through a field of ripening wheat.

“Mind the grain!” Hart called. “Don’t tread it down too much.”

*Better tread than eat by rat.* Came back the dry comment, followed by a flurry of squeaks, growls and a series of crunches.

As Hart waited in the shade of a large oak that grew along the verge of the field, he heard a distant hail.

“Scrivener! Salaam!” Seeming almost to float into view in his voluminous robes, the chapman waved as he led his laden donkey to where Hart rested.

“Ibed, peace to you to, my friend. Whence come you with all those bundles? Your poor beast will be bowed in the legs if he has to carry that load much longer.”

“Ah, as the Great One wills, I have just come from the port, a week’s walk! I have many fine things for the ladies at the castle and not a few needful ones for the villagers.” The dusky skinned traveler settled, cross-legged beside Hart and mopped his brow. Though the day was not hot, his efforts had clearly taken their toll of him.

“What new, youngling? Have you learned aught of the doings of the Dark in Stamglen?” The chapman looked carefully around before posing the question.

“Much! Come, let us find a place more private and I will tell you all that has chanced since our meeting beneath that other oak tree.” Hart rose and gestured for Ibed to follow. Taking a path that led to a broad meadow, the scrivener pointed toward a low sheepfold, empty until the time of wintering the flocks. The spot was deserted and too far of the main road for casual passers-by.

Seizing the opportunity to draw out his tiny brazier, the chapman lighted a fire and proceeded to brew a potent black drink that set Hart’s teeth on edge when he tasted it. “Now, tell me all.”

When the scrivener had finished his account of the events of his discoveries beneath the castle, the strange poisoning and his unaccountable inability in employing his Gifts, Ibed pulled at his thin beard and remained silent for several long moments.

Without speaking, he turned to a small pannier he had removed from his donkey and reached inside, murmuring to himself in a language unknown to Hart. In a few breaths he stood erect and drew forth a small gleaming object. It appeared to be in the shape of a leaf, about as wide as the span of the man’s hand, and made of finely polished brass. Intricate lines were scribed on it, perhaps runes, but of no pattern that the scrivener had ever seen, not even in all his exploration of Owlglass’s many books.

Still wordless, the chapman from the far eastern lands stepped across to stand beside Hart and motioned for him to rise. As he did, Ibed passed the glistening brass leaf before and behind the scrivener, repeating the process three times. When he had finished he held up the bit of metal and grunted.

“Ummm. It is as I feared. Friend Hart, you have been the victim of Dark magic.”

Stunned, Hart almost fell back. “I? How can it be? I have been nowhere but with Brother Belicaus or in the cave of Soorta. Or—in my own loft to sleep!”

“Nonetheless, this tool does not lie. See?” The chapman held out the now dulled and besmirched brass. It was as if someone had dipped it in grease and then plunged it in an old fire pit. The surface that had almost glowed, not seconds before, was lifeless.

“It would seem that we need take greater care, lad. You are now come to the attention of the Enemy. Did you not say that Lazarous has become aware of you and may be curious?”

“Aye, it is to be feared. I took a very public part in the discovery of the poisoned well.” Hart felt a shiver pass over him.

“It stands to logic that the time you were unattended by your friends is most likely when you came under attack. Your Gifts would have been blunted, whereas others present might not have been.” A thoughtful expression crossed Ibed’s bronzed features.

“My loft! Perhaps someone planted a charm or even slipped a potion into my food?” The scrivener was beginning to feel all too vulnerable.

“Perhaps. It would be well to make a careful search. Mark anything that is out of place.” The chapman began to reload his small beast. “There is little else we can do now. I will off to the inn. If you learn anything, seek me there.”

“Thank you, Ibed Chapman. I will take your advice.” Hart sat again, to allow some time for the merchant to make his way to the vill, before calling to Free-Claw and returning to initiate his search.

 

 

 

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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.