Rusted Armor

By Andre Norton and Caroline Fike

Chapter Nineteen

Sal had come in and was bustling about the preparation of the evening meal when Reeve Moklin returned.

“Scrivener, I have another job for you. There are a number of virgators living some distance from here. Each year, just before harvest, it is customary to take inventory of their virgates—the numbers of their flocks, how they have made use of their land, adherence to the rules of pasturage and such like. Normally the task falls to me, but I believe your particular abilities might be quite useful in getting a true picture of their affairs.” Moklin chuckled at the thought of how some of the trickier of Lord Stormund’s surfs might squirm under Hart’s gaze.

“Aye, Reeve. When do I depart?” Hart would far rather have been posted to the Castle, but duty was not his to determine.

“At first light. I have requested of the Marshall two men at arms to accompany you. The task is not the most popular and it would be helpful for you, a new face to the virgators, to have the authority of the Castle at your back.” The Reeve moved to a low cabinet and drew forth a thick roll of parchment.

“This is a listing of the various outlying virgates, their occupants and the inventory from last season. It would be well for you to acquaint yourself with this to prepare for you trip.” As his employer handed him the bundle, Hart groaned mentally. It would be a late night for him.

On the morrow the scrivener stumbled somewhat blearily from his loft and took the bowl of porridge Sal offered. “Looks like ye should be makin’ for yer bed, not leavin’ it,” she cackled.

“Aye, Mother Sal. But there’s no help for it. I’m headed to the saddle and a long day’s ride.” As Hart finished his response, a pounding on the door announced the arrival of the armsmen with a horse in tow for the scrivener’s use.

Sal had already packed supplies at Moklin’s instruction, for the trip, so Hart needed only to relieve himself and splash some cold water on his face before mounting up and heading out of the vill.

He soon learned that the armsmen’s names were Brod and Tacker. The former was quiet to the point of sullenness, but his companion more than made up for that silence by his steady chatter. “Beau’iful day, don’t ye think, Scrivener? Nothin’ like a fine day in autumn to make a man’s blud get t’flowin’.” And so he continued in the same vein until Hart would have gladly stuffed something, either in the man’s mouth or in his own ears to get a bit of rest.

The three travelers made a nooning at the Purloined Goose and for once Hart managed to escape the constant flow of words. Tacker had spotted an old mate of his and the two retreated to a corner to catch up on news. With no small relief, Hart stretched out on a bench as far from the two as he could find. As he dozed off, however, he had a vague impression that Brod was also in conversation, but, taking no interest in the others’ business, he fell asleep.

All too soon he was shaken awake by the silent Brod who jerked his chin toward the door. The message was clear: time to get back on the road.

As the afternoon wore on, Hart sent a mind message to his four-legged friend, “Free-Claw, do you follow?

*Follow.* Came the reply.

Good. I have an uneasy feeling about this trip. One man talks far too much and the other far too little.” Hart also did not like the fact that his escort had been assigned by the Marshall. Naught might come of it, but he would remain vigilant.

Stay out of sight, my friend, but close.” Hart cautioned the pard.

*Men no see Free-Claw.* The cat responded, mentally confident, as was his habit.

The first night on the road found them at the edge of a deep stream, beyond which the old forest drew near as though guarding a boundary. The weather being fine, it was decided that the three would simply make camp on the bank and sleep in the open, wrapped in their cloaks.

Tacker looked nervously toward the ancient trees that crowded close to the far bank. “It’s right glad I am that there’s swift flowing water ‘tween us and that wood. Ye never know what might be prowlin’ them places.”

“Humph!” Was Brod’s only response. His look of scorn would have cowed any but the garrulous Tacker.

“What do you suppose might be there?” Hart decided to lead him on a bit, find out what he meant.

“Well, there’s beasts what drink blud, I bin told. What’s more, me mate back there at the ‘Goose’ says a haunt’s been seen in these parts—wears a long gray cloak.” As he warmed to his subject, Tacker’s excitement grew.

“Hog swattle!” Brod clearly did not enter into the same excitement.

“What does this haunt do?” Hart inquired.

“’E steals folk. Why, just seven days gone, a man disappeared, not three breaths after tellin’ ‘is wife ‘e was goin’ t’ privy and would be back to chop wood.” The earnest look on the armsman’s face—was it for effect, or did he believe the story?

“Run off, more like, t’ avoid work.” Brod commented, putting together more words than Hart had heard from him all day.

“Well, I don’t think we need fear beasts or haunts tonight,” Hart said as he wrapped his own cloak closely about him and found a spot near the campfire. “I’m for sleep.”

When Tacker would have chattered on, a sharp look from his companion silenced him at last. Grumbling that “Folk better pay heed to such warnin’s. They be’ant just tales!” he followed the others and bedded down for the night.

A thought occurred to Hart before sleep shut off such: If there is so much danger about, strange that no one has suggested posting a watch.

In response to his drowsy musing, Free-Claw favored him with one final comment: *Men plan what is real danger.*

True, my furred friend. Danger that is directed need not be watched for.

But morning revealed nothing worse had developed in the night than sore backs from sleeping on the rough ground. Tacker grumbled loudly about “miserable duty” while Brod set about serving out bread and ale for breakfast.

A brisk ride, along the track that followed the river, brought the men in sight of a small cluster of houses lying close to the bank. “That be Nether Weir Set, Scrivener. Now the work begins.” Tacker pronounced somewhat officiously.

“Nether Weir Set?” Hart lifted the brow that was not hidden by his eye patch.

“Aye. There was a pair of weirs built across the river hereabouts and, to tell ‘em apart, folks took to callin’ ‘em “upper and nether weir’. So, the ‘amlets what grew up close by took on the names too.” Tacker explained, puffing himself up a bit at being able to impart information to the scrivener. He added, “the fish traps long ago rotted away, but t’ names stuck.”

“I see.” Hart reasoned that the name was as sensible as any he had heard, even if out of date. He turned at the sound of a hail and saw a short, stout fellow approaching with a collection of men at his heel.

“Tak it ye’re from ‘is Lardship, come to mak us give account,” the man said without preamble.

“Aye. My name is Hart, Scrivener to Reeve Moklin. I would appreciate being shown the village stores and flocks.”

“Let’s to it, then. Time’s wastin’.” Gesturing with his chubby hand, the village leader, for that was obviously his role, called up a lanky youth. “This be Stubbs. He’ll tak ye about.” With that the head man waddled off, not bothering even to give Hart his own name.

As Hart looked up at his tall guide the pard spoke in his mind, *If him Stubbs, what other man’s name, Feathers?* The cat was hidden somewhere not too far to observe the meeting.

Hart choked to cover what would have been a most ill timed display of mirth. Free-Claw, you are going to get me in real trouble yet! The scrivener mind-sent to his feline companion.

Stubbs, as cooperative as his leader was not, called to a nearby cottage for a pot of ale and offered it to Hart.

“My thanks. It would seem that I took a bit of a chill sleeping in the open last night.” Hart really did not feel quite at his best, but it was the first reason he could think of to explain his sudden fit of coughing.

The rest of the day was taken up in recording the content of Nether Weir Set’s stores and taking note of the condition and number of Lord Stormund’s flocks that were in the care of the villagers. He even duly recorded that a fair amount of manure was piled in the pit outside the community fold, waiting for spring ploughing, to be spread on the Lord’s fields.

As was intended, Hart’s unannounced arrival did have one desired result: he was able to discover that several of the householders had been surreptitiously baking their own bread, for there was no mistaking the aroma that floated to him on the morning air.

When he directed Stubbs to take him to the offending cottages, no bread could be seen. However, it was an easy matter for his Gifted senses to ferret out the contraband loaves. With a warning to the guilty, Hart confiscated a large sack full of barley bread, which he would return to the Reeve for delivery to the castle.

“I will not bring a charge against you in the Hallmote this time,” he warned the red-faced wives, “but don’t break the law again. You know right well that it is forbidden to bake your own bread and thereby take from the village baker his rightful living.”

Putting the subtle force of his Gifted Eye behind the admonition, Hart felt sure that it would be long and long before that particular law was broken in Nether Weir Set again.

Having completed the circuit of the half-score virgates and several half-virgates of Nether Weir Set, Hart and his armsmen found a bed for the night on the floor of a tiny taproom kept by the local alewife. He was heartily glad that the morrow would find them heading back to Stamglen. Enforcing the sometimes-mystifying rules of the manor was not the scrivener’s favorite occupation. He much preferred the keeping of records, though even that brought him only limited satisfaction. He fell asleep musing on the curious turns and twists his life had taken over the months since—

Hart was a bit surprised when Brod insisted on taking a different way back to Stamglen, but not being familiar with that part of the country, the scrivener made no protest. After a long day’s ride through an area of fens and brackish pools, they came out at last onto higher ground, which rose steadily until they reached a stone hut surrounded by stark moors.

Here the dour armsman indicated they would stop for the night and, for once, even Tacker seemed uninclined to talk. Wearily grateful for the unexpected peace that brought, Hart thought nothing of this but supposed that the loquacious armsman was as tired as he.

During the night the wind began to rise and finally reached a howling fury that awoke Hart with a jolt. Confused from his heavy sleep, at first he failed to realize something amiss. Then looking about in the dim light of the evening’s fire he saw. His armsmen were gone!

He leaped up and felt for a cudgel he had laid close to his pallet. It was missing. This did not bode well—a trap? Hart sent out a mind call: Free-Claw! What passes?

*Men sneak away.* The demi-pard’s answer was swift.

Can you sense anyone? Hart’s scalp tingled under the Cap of Knowledge. He had begun to sense someone’s approach himself.

*Gray cloak come.*

The haunt of Tacker’s tale. So, he had been brought here for an evil purpose. But perhaps the attacker was not expecting him to be able to defend himself. The armsmen had seen to it he would be weaponless—and, if this were what he expected—the enemy would expect to find him bereft of his magical gifts too, given the salting of his loft with iron. Well, he would play along for a bit and see what he could learn. It might be a grave risk, but—

Hart swiftly scraped a mound of straw from the dusty floor of the shepherd’s hut and rolled it in his own cloak. Then, drawing his wand, he crept back into the far corner of the stone building opposite the embers of last evening’s fire. As he reached his hiding place a faint glow alerted him that someone was just outside the door.

Making no sound above the shriek of the wind, a tall gray-cloaked and hooded form moved just within the doorway. From under the cloak a gaunt hand appeared and slender fingers moved in an undulating fashion, pointed toward the supposed sleeping form on the ground. A scarcely visible glow passed from the hand across the space and seemed to settle on the target.

Hart’s cloak began to smoke and burst suddenly into blue flame. At that precise moment the scrivener brought his wand down across the attacker’s hand and the resulting flash of pure emerald light near blinded him. The gray-cloaked figure whirled and issued a guttural cry, staggering back, one arm now limp.

Recovering from the surprising display of his wand, Hart was not quite sure what to do next. His opponent seemed to waver for a moment and, though the hood of the gray cloak remained in place, hiding the attacker’s features, it was clear that the benefit of surprise was greater for Hart.

“Sssso, he ssstill hass mmagicss!” The words issuing from beneath the hood were barely recognizable and the voice hardly human. The creature, for now Hart realized that this was no true man, began to circle to his right. The scrivener moved accordingly, careful not to permit his enemy to close the distance between them.

“Yes, I have my Powers!” Hart decided to challenge his opponent, goad it into revealing more. “Your master’s plot failed, as you can see.

“Fffailed? We will sssee about that!” With the taunting words, the creature’s uninjured hand swept back the limp sleeve and grasped something. In a move, almost too rapid to follow, it whipped the object forward as if to throw at Hart.

But, for all its speed, the move was not as swift as the leap of a snarling black pard. Free-Claw’s leap was timed perfectly to smash into the attacker before it could launch its final weapon. Instead of hurling it at the scrivener, the gray-cloak crashed to the ground in a twisted heap. With an ear-splitting scream, the creature suddenly stiffened into an impossible backward arc, then fell to a heap, quite dead.

Hart moved closer to examine the body and saw what had been meant for him, a wickedly long dart embedded in the creature’s own leg. For the space of a breath or two, a flicker of blue light danced over the weapon and then dissipated. Sitting down suddenly, the scrivener drew a deep breath. “I owe you my life, my friend. Had that been thrown at me—”

*Life for life. If Man Friend no save Free-Claw. Free-Claw no able to save Man Friend.* The pard sniffed at the corpse and spat, then gave a prodigious sneeze.

Having steadied himself after the close call, Hart reached to draw back the hood and see just what sort of attacker they had fronted, but as he did so, the body had already begun to melt away, leaving only the empty cloak.

“A construct, methinks. It is likely that this is what has been following me for some time and probably the one that put the iron in my sand and my bed.”

A sudden thought occurred to Hart. He withdrew from his pouch the small parchment packet he had thought to bring, for what reason he had not known, when starting out on the trip. Opening it, he shook the filmy gray contents out and for an instant the shadow rose up and took on the exact contour of the cloaked creature, then it too melted into nothingness.

At a low growl from the pard, Hart jumped up to gaze toward the doorway. In the dim light of dawn stood Brod and Tacker. Were they shocked to see him standing unhurt? To the scrivener’s Gifted Eye, it was just so, but the two quickly made to cover their surprise.

“Oh, scrivener! What happened?” Tacker finally found his voice.

“What indeed, armsman?” Hart looked coldly from one to the other. “It would seem that you left your post and exposed me to grave danger.”

“We—we heard something in the night and followed. We feared—” The lame attempt at explanation trailed off when Tacker realized that Hart would have none of it.

“I suggest you bundle up this gray cloak and return it to your superior. The owner has no further use for it.” With that Hart beckoned to the pard and strode out to mount his horse.

The armsmen were left with no option but to follow his instructions. When the Gifted command, the ungifted obey.

 

 

 

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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.