Rusted Armor

By Andre Norton and Caroline Fike

Chapter Eighteen

Try as he would, Hart could find nothing amiss in his loft. All was as he remembered leaving it. Nor had anything strange been added, as far as he could determine.

“Well, Free-Claw, it would seem that Ibed was off the mark. I find no sign of tampering.” The scrivener returned to his bench and sat heavily, beginning to wonder if his Gift had somehow just deserted him.

*Not know all. Man-Friend not lose power!* The pard sat in a corner, grooming himself meticulously, as though there was no cause for worry.

“That be easy for you to say, my furry friend, but I feel more a cubling than a man. Believe me, it is not a good feeling.” Hart smacked his hand on the table before him, causing his quills to rattle in their holder.

*Must wait. Answer come.* Free-Claw carefully licked a paw and applied himself to long whiskers, combing each slowly.

Before Hart could respond to the cat’s quiet mind voice, the door burst open and Dicken, the page, burst in. “Hart, look what I found!”

The lad galloped across the room toward Hart’s bench, holding a dark object in his hand, but he was so intent on showing his find that he failed to see a low stool in his way. Tripping on it, he lurched full into the scrivener’s desk, dropping the stone squarely into the box of inker’s sand.

“Oof, I—I’m sorry, Hart. I just wanted you to see this wonderful stone I found at the stream. My wounds were so much better that Hesta let me go for a walk.” The boy’s explanation trailed off as a curious thing occurred before them both. Almost like tiny ants marching to their hill, a multitude of dark specs seemed to crawl out of the sand and affix themselves to the stone.

“Wha—what is that?” Dicken’s jaw dropped in amazement.

“Unless I am sorely mistaken, it is the action of a lodestone on iron, lad. And you just solved a mystery for us.” Hart near laughed as he realized the impact of this discovery.

“What is a lodestone?” The page gingerly reached toward the stone and fingered the tiny bits of metal that seemed to be sprouting hair-like from it.

“It has the power to draw iron to it, though I know not exactly how.” Hart made sure that he did not touch the object.

“Oh. But why did you say I solved a mystery?” Dicken lifted the rock and turned it about, rubbing off some of the bits.

“I can not tell you the whole of it now, but trust me. You have truly returned a favor to me and can serve me even further if you will bring your stone and follow my instructions.” Hart rose and led the youth to his loft.

“Take this and fold it over. Scrape off all the metal into it and see that none escapes.” Hart handed him a small scrap of parchment.

“Yes, scrivener. Then what?” The page did as he was instructed.

“Now, bring your lodestone and pass it over my bed place. See if you can find any more of those bits of iron.” Hart stood back and waited as the boy did as he was bid. Nor was he surprised to find that soon the stone bristled once more with metallic hairs.

“I think it best that you repeat the process. We must not take the chance of leaving any behind.”

Dicken obeyed, though he looked at Hart once or twice quizzically, but made no further comment. When he had finished and carefully removed all the metal into the parchment, he made one final pass over the straw pallet but the lodestone came away clean.

“My thanks, lad. You will know in time that you have rendered a service, not just to me, but to your lord as well.” Hart smiled and rested his hand on the youngster’s shoulder. “I’m truly grateful.”

“You are welcome, but it was really nothing I knew to do. It just happened.” Dicken appeared a bit embarrassed at the scrivener’s gratitude.

*Not just happen. Was meant.* From his corner, the pard had watched all with his customary calm.

Dicken looked toward Free-Claw and then back at Hart with raised eyebrows. “There is much going on that I don’t understand, but I will be patient.”

Hart laughed, feeling easier than he had in many hours. “Aye, lad. I must ask you one more favor. Promise me, on your honor, that you will speak of this to no one, not even Hesta.”

“Not the herb woman?” The boy seemed shocked. “Don’t you trust her?”

“Oh, aye. I trust her with my life, but I fear the ability of my enemies to hear what is spoken, even in the safest places.” Hart walked with the page to the door. “Another favor, Dicken. Take the parchment with the iron to Belicaus, say only to him that I wish to speak with him. Will you do that for me?”

“It is done, Hart. I owe you my life.” The lad waved as he darted off down the rutted street toward the priory.

“No, lad. You have discharged that debt.” Hart murmured as the boy disappeared.

The monk did not come at once, but sent word that he would see Hart at the village inn after nones. In the meanwhile the scrivener decided to do a bit of investigating on his own. Finding Sal at the washing out back of Moklin’s house, he sat cross-legged beside her and casually prodded the coals under her cauldron.

“Hot work, Mother Sal.” Hart remarked.

“What woman’s work is not?” She replied. “So, what brings you to Old Sal’s yard? Must be somethin’. Men do not usually find her company so pleasin’ these days.” Laughing the aged woman peered at him with rheumy eyes.

“You’re right. I need to know aught. And you are perhaps the only person who can tell me.” Hart spoke honestly.

“Say on.”

“Have you noticed anyone skulking about the Reeve’s house?”

“Hmm, maybe. Why be ye askin’?” A calculating look came on the wrinkled face.

Hart nodded and reached into his pouch for a coin. “Would this help your memory?” He asked.

“Yesss, now that ye mention it. I did see sommat made me wonder t’other night. I ‘uz comin’ back from me sister’s daughter’s lyin’-in and just as I rounded corner yonder, a man in a dark cloak ducked away. Thought it strange, but forgot it ‘til now.”

“Could you tell anything else about him?” Hart felt a prickle under his cap.

“Nay, can’t say as I can. It was dark.” She scratched her chin where a noticeable number of hairs sprouted.

“Well, my thanks, Sal. You have been a great help.” Hart rose to leave. “Oh, one thing more. If you see anything amiss in future, will you let me know?” He smiled at the elderly servant.

“O’ course. Ye be good to Sal; she’ll be eyes for ye.” With a wink, she turned to resume her work.

So, Hart thought as he strode back into the Reeve’s house, there has been someone lurking about. I must take great care. If I am lucky, though, he will not know that I’ve discovered the iron.

*Know what means?* Free-Claw’s question broke through Hart’s musing as the pard came along side.

“What does it mean, friend?” Hart looked down at the sleek black form that paced beside him.

*Means enemy knows Man-friend has Gift and steel stops Gift.* The logic in the cat’s mental speech could not be gainsaid. Hart felt a knife of fear.

“I had not stopped to think of that. What else does Lazarous know? To know that I am Gifted is one thing, but to know the nature of that Gift if quite another.” Hart’s words were braver than he felt.

*Him know you Know.*

“Yes, all of Under Stamglen has heard of my ability to uncover deceptions.” The scrivener pondered the events of the past few days.

*Man-friend’s fame grows. Many remember you discover poison water.*

“Thanks to you, Free-Claw. I would never have found that serpent without your skill. But—still—what the villeins saw was my bringing it out of the well.”

Man and cat moved across the room to Hart’s desk. As the pard passed under the ladder to the loft he spat violently.

“What is it, Free-Claw?” Hart followed the direction of his companion’s gaze. Clearly visible at the top of the ladder was the shadow of a bent human figure.

Scrambling up the ladder after the cat, who had taken the distance in one leap. With a fierce warning snarl, the pard bounded about the small space but soon halted and sat on his haunches, as puzzled as Hart, when no one was to be found.

*Where man?*

“Indeed, my friend. Where is the man? There is a—wait!” Hart moved back down the ladder to fetch fire from the coals on the hearth. He lit a candle and retraced his steps. Holding the candle aloft he turned slowly to mark the shadows it cast. Clearly visible were the forms of the pard and himself and—one other!

*What mean?* The cat moved cautiously to the wall and sniffed at the dark smudge, spitting again.

“It would seem that for some reason, our uninvited visitor has left behind something—his shadow.” Hart pummeled his memory for something he had read in one of Owlglass’s books. “I believe it happened when the one, who salted my bed with iron, had to leave very quickly. He must have come very close to being discovered, perhaps even just as we returned.”

*What snag shadow?* Free-Claw tilted his head to one side, as if trying to understand the strange happening.

“It may well be that my Dhroghii stone wand came to bear—so let us see what effect it will have on what was left.” Hart felt a tingle of excitement at the thought.

Removing the wand from his belt he slowly passed it across the faint image on the wall and nearly dropped it as the shape twisted and seemed to recoil as though trying to avoid the object of Power.

“Ah—methinks we are on the right track!” Hart moved a bit closer and, using the wand as he would a quill, scribed a circle around the shadow, which vainly attempted to draw in on itself each time it came in contact with the invisible boundary.

Again the scrivener passed the wand in a circle, this time well within the first one. This time the writhing shadow seemed unable to react further and froze in a posture that reminded Hart of a man trying to protect himself from blows by arms crossed above his head. Finally able to outline the shadow itself, he tapped it once and the strange image came away from the wall with an audible popping sound and dropped in a small heap on the floor.

Hart formed a small packet from another piece of parchment and gingerly lifted the limp remains of the shadow with the tip of his silver knife and tucked it inside. “This may well prove valuable, Free-Claw. If what I remember from a book I once read, the owner of this shadow will suffer its loss and seek to retrieve it. If he does, we will be ready for him. I think it is time to find Ibed al Zahr and enlist his aid.”

*What him do?* The cat sniffed at the packet and seemed satisfied that it no longer offered any threat.

“I believe he will help me put some safeguards on my nest place. I do not dare leave it unprotected. Will you bide here ‘til I return?”

*Free-Claw watch.* The pard paced over and curled up in the center of Hart’s pallet, turning round and round first, to make it comfortable.

Hart set off at a jog toward the inn where he hoped he would find Ibed resting before the chapman delivered his wares to Castle Stamglen. The scrivener was relieved to meet the merchant on the street leading his patient donkey toward his destination. “Hail, Chapman! Will you turn aside for a moment? I would have a word with you.”

“With pleasure, Scrivener. How may I serve you?” Gesturing toward a shady spot on the edge of the common, Ibed hobbled his animal so that it might graze for a bit.

“I have discovered the source of the evil, and it is much as you suggested. Someone placed bits of iron in my inker’s sand and what was worse, spread it in the straw of my pallet.” Hart hastily recounted the manner in which the attack had been uncovered and his discovery of the shadow.

“Ah, it’s as I feared. Your enemy is now on the attack.” The chapman frowned.

“Aye, and I dare not leave my abode unprotected. Is there aught you can do to help me?” A touch of desperation crept into Hart’s voice.

“Hmmm. I think there may be something. I will aid you in placing wards against further magical attack. I have collected more than goods in my travels.” Ibed beckoned to a small lad who loitered at the far side of the common. Giving the lad a coin, the chapman bid him watch the donkey and promised another if he should find all in order on his return. The boy’s eyes grew large at the sight of the coins and tugging his forelock, he moved to stand guard beside the docile animal.

“You do not fear theft?” Hart asked.

“Nay. The people know Ibed al Zahr and will not violate his belongings. A reputation is a valuable thing.”

“Perhaps—but in my case a reputation may be a dangerous thing.” Hart spoke ruefully.

“Indeed. But, I think your reputation has just begun to develop, along with your powers. It is time to add something to your equipage.” As the chapman completed the observation, he drew from his voluminous sleeve a small drawstring bag. Whether arising from the leather of the bag or from its contents, Hart could not decide if its pungent odor was desirable or not.

Accompanying Hart to the Reeve’s house and climbing to the loft, Ibed reached into the bag and began to sprinkle a trail of dark red powder across the threshold. When he had done, he murmured several strange words and passed his hand over the trace. As he spoke, a barely visible mist rose from the powder to form a curtain from floor to roof. In the space of a few heart beats it disappeared and even the red trail was no longer to be seen.

“Hart, repeat these words after me and memorize them: aspooth, tegnim, fayam! When you would refresh the warding or form another, do as I have done.” With that he handed the bag of powder to the scrivener.

“May I ask what is this in the bag?” Hart wanted to know.

“It is from a root that grows in the lands that border the warm sea, where I grew up. It serves only as a focus. You may find a substitute for it, I know not for certain, but I suspect that the herb woman might aid you there.” With a bow, the chapman backed down the ladder and took his leave.

“My thanks!” Hart called as his Gifted friend passed out to resume his errand to the Castle.

*Safe now?* Free-Claw’s mind voice sounded a bit unsure.

“As safe as we can be when the target of great Evil. We must be constantly on guard, my friend. Even the slightest slip could well prove fatal.” Hart felt the weight of his somber words.

*Man friend not worry. Free-Claw best guard.* Once more the calm self-assurance of the dwarf pard served to comfort Hart. Granted, he did feel less exposed than he had scarce two hours gone. Strange what a difference could be made by a lodestone, some red powder and –Power!

Thinking on the curious chain of events that had propelled him to his present state, Hart experienced the shock of realization. I am endowed with Power!

*Just find that out?* Free-Claw’s droll question brought the scrivener abruptly out of his introspection. Hart grinned and aimed a playful swat at the pard, which the cat adroitly dodged with his usual speed of movement.

“All right, my four-legged companion, I will cease chewing on things I can hardly swallow. You have put me in my place—that place is to get busy.”

Carefully brushing aside the cobweb that covered the hiding place, Hart removed the chart and map and set about studying them with renewed ability, now that his Gifts were not dulled by encroaching iron. As the day wore on, layer upon layer of glamour seemed to melt away, leaving plain to him the deepest secrets of Castle Stamglen.

When at length he rolled up and stowed away the documents, Hart had committed to memory the path he must take when next he could find reason to visit the lair of his Enemy.

 

 

 

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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.