Rusted Armor

By Andre Norton and Caroline Fike

Chapter Twenty

Still anxious about Brydwen’s safety, Hart went in search of Brother Belicaus, once he had delivered his report to Moklin, along with the confiscated bread. He found the monk working in the small herb garden that served the Priory of Saint Stam.

“Brother! Well met. Have you been to the castle?” The scrivener’s voice betrayed his concern as it trembled slightly.

“Aye, friend Hart, that I have.” The hint of a knowing twinkle played around the tall monk’s deep-set eyes.

“Well, what learned you?” Hart was nearly hoarse with impatience.

“The Bard Brydwen is quite safe. I found her performing a rather doleful ‘In Nomine’ for Lord Stegward, who is visiting from Cladworth Manor. It would seem that he is quite pious and doesn’t approve of ‘frivolous music’.” A laugh rumbled from the brother at the recollection of the scene at Castle Stamglen.

“I’ve heard of him—should have taken the cloth, some say.” The scrivener chuckled.

“Lord Stormund insisted that the entire household attend the performance, even the Marshall. Needless to say, Lazarous was most uncomfortable at having to listen to a lengthy presentation of devotional music.” Belicaus scratched his chin and seemed to ponder for a moment.

“Indeed, he would be out of place in such an assembly.” Hart remarked.

“But what of your trip? Did you encounter anything amiss?” The monk asked.

“Yes. And as I fully expected, there was an attack. I believe a creature of the Dark was responsible for an attempt to blunt my Powers and, believing it had been successful, came to finish me off.” Hart showed Belicaus a small remnant of his burned cloak.

“What passed?”

“On the third night of our trip, Sir Lazarous’s men, who had been assigned to guard and assist me, conveniently disappeared after having led me to an isolated shepherd’s hut on the high moor. There I would have met my end, had not Free-Claw been quicker than my attacker. Instead of thrusting a poisoned dart into my flesh, he found it sunk in his own.” Hart near shuddered at the memory of the night gone.

“But, you called this attacker ‘a creature’. It was no man?” Belicaus had grown pale at the import of Hart’s account.

“Nay. It was not by voice, nor any other measure, a man. The proof came in its death, for, as whatever life it had been given by the Evil that had made it, ebbed away, the thing simply melted!”

“Melted?” Beads of sweat now shown on the brother’s brow.

“That is the best description I can give. Soon there was naught left but an empty gray cloak.” Hart went on to recount the tale told by Tacker and his suspicions of the armsman’s attempt to instill fear in the scrivener, thereby making him an easier target.

“Well, it tells us one thing certainly: Sir Lazarous must lie somewhere at the heart of these evil doings. All signs point to that.” The monk looked thoughtful. “Furthermore, he is obviously now well aware that you have Powers.”

“But, just how is he doing these things and why is he after me?” Hart’s mind whirled as he tried to grasp the scope and pattern of the events and clues of the past fortnight and more.

“That is something we must try and discover.”

“We? I think rather that it is for me to accomplish by penetrating the secret of the Castle.” Hart tried to sound firm.

“Remember the Pact of the Gifted!” Belicaus retorted sharply.

“Aye, I remember. I must not try and go it alone. But, Belicaus, we cannot all march into Stamglen and storm the lair of the Dark which might lie there!” Frustration crackled in the scrivener’s voice.

“That I know, but it is imperative that each of us be alerted to support you when you do delve there.” The monk’s returned slowly.

“This I promise: I will not venture without I first get word to the members of the Pact. I know my limitations.” The scrivener bowed acquiescence to the somber faced monk.

“That is all I can ask.” With that they parted.

*****

The day soon arrived when all villeins and freemen of Stamglen Manor gathered to take part in the boon harvest. Few grudged the service they would render to the Lord Stormund, for his boons were renowned for their generosity. Furthermore, this was to be a “wet boon”; ale would flow in plenty to refresh the harvesters, along with ample supplies of food for the time it would take to cut and rick the barley, corn (wheat) and other grains that stood ripe in the fields.

Custom required that Reeve Moklin attend to supervise the workers, making sure none slacked or deliberately left too much fallen grain for later gleaning. He instructed his scrivener to follow with parchment and quill to keep a running count and serve as another observer to discourage cheating.

Lord Stormund’s fields stretched far, fanning around the village and out toward the moor to the west. Now presenting a contrasting palate of rich golds, tawny mustards, and vibrant browns, set against the still green of the far meadows, the scene Hart viewed in the early morning light was glorious. Favorable weather blessed the harvesters with brilliant blue skies and soft warm sunlight. Many years it had not been thus, as one gnarled-fingered old villein told him. The bane of the harvesters could be the autumn storms that often rolled across the moor to drench the crops and pound the ripe grain from the stalks, to be snatched up by hungry “critters”.

What was worse, the man told him, happened when the storms waited until the grain was in the ricks, but as yet not threshed. Then it was nigh on to impossible to get the job done before the soggy straw began to mold. If the grain soured, there would be precious little ale and folk might sicken and die from eating bread made from the barley, rye or wheat that had spoiled.

Hart began to realize that life for the peasants was a long and bitter struggle against the elements and presented few opportunities for pleasure. But this day promised to be an exception. Laughter and rude jokes filled the morning air among the fields and villeins seemed in a mood to vie with one another to see how swiftly each could accomplish the appointed task. But on the second day of the harvest, the friendly competition soon grew into a frenzy, however, with grave results.

Several half-grown youths, sons of prominent villeins, launched a contest to see who could scythe and stack the most ricks of grain in a single turning of the glass. They set to with a will and were soon flailing away at the edge of a lush field. Bent to the work, one lad failed to see nearby a young woman, who was also working the same area. Her back was turned while she swung a hand blade. The first warning of trouble came as she screamed and tumbled into the uncut grain, blood spurting from an ugly gash in her thigh.

Hart had been close enough to see when the youth’s scythe caught her on a particularly energetic back-swing and laid open the wound on her leg. The scrivener dropped his parchment and rushed to her side, shouting mentally for Free-Claw to get help.

The boys who had been contesting their harvesting abilities stood about helplessly, some even ducking away at the sight of so much blood.

Having dealt with sword wounds, not unlike that on the woman’s leg, Hart knew that he must staunch the flow of blood, or she would soon be dead. He swiftly tore a strip of cloth from her now ruined skirt and quickly bound it above the cut, using his wand to tighten the twisted rag. As he cinched it down hard, the flow ceased and only a small amount of blood now oozed from her thigh.

The scrivener knew that he could not long hold the injured leg thus, because the limb would soon die without a normal supply of blood. He had seen this result too in his days as a knight. The whimpering woman’s only hope lay in the healing hands of the tall monk.

*Healer come, Hesta too.* The pard had done Hart’s bidding with his usual speed.

In moments the Herb Woman and the monk arrived and set to work together to minister to the now fainting peasant. Belicaus took the tourniquet from Hart and gently eased it. As the flow of blood recommenced, Hesta handed him a poultice of wound-seal. The brother applied it to the gash and carefully bound the leg with clean strips of rag he had brought.

By this time Reeve had joined the circle of observers. “That is a bad cut. I venture she will probably die of the green rot.” The dire prediction brought a groan from the lad whose carelessness had accidentally caused the wound.

“Well you might grieve.! Grieve for yourself—there will be a fine to pay, next Hallmote. This should never have happened, save for your foolishness.” Moklin’s words caused the lad to grow, if anything, paler than he already was.

“I—I didn’t mean to—” he stammered.

“Of course not. But that makes no difference. You lads were in a race, one that brought grief on this poor woman.” The Reeve beckoned Hart to pick up his parchment.

“Scrivener, record all the names of these careless harvesters. Charges will be brought against them and if this woman dies—” He did not need to complete the threat. All knew the consequences.

“She is not yet dead. While she lives, we may hope.” The soft words of the monk penetrated the murmurs of a group of watchers as he spread his hands over the now slowly crimsoning bandage and bowed his head. In a voice, audible only to the Herb Woman at his side, Belicaus offered a petition for his patient. When he had finished, he remained kneeling beside her.

Leaning low over the woman, the monk continued to press both hands against the wounded leg. Again, none was aware of what took place next, but Hesta, for she, too, crouched over the sufferer. The Herb Woman felt the hairs on her head prickle as the monk’s hands began to glow and the light from them seemed to settle into the very bandages. Nor was Hesta surprised to note that instead of spreading, the bloodstain was actually retreating.

At length the monk rose to his feet somewhat unsteadily and called for a litter. “She may now be moved. I think it best that she be taken to Hesta’s cottage. It would be well for her to be watched for the rest of the day and through the night.”

“M—may I serve a turn at watching?” The lad, who had caused the hurt, asked timidly.

“Why not? It would give Hesta a break.” Belicaus smiled at the troubled youngster. “What is your name, lad?”

“It’s Tode, Brother.”

“All right, Tode. Why don’t you finish your tasks here and come at dark to the Herb Woman’s cottage. She will tell you what to do.”

“Aye. I’ll be there.” Somewhat lighter in spirit, the youth picked up the offending scythe and returned to work, taking great care to see that none were in the way of its swing.”

Four of the older villeins came with a makeshift litter and the monk gently lifted the woman, placing her on it. She groaned and opened her eyes.

“Wha—what happened? Ooo—my leg!” Memory of the injury flooded back and she began to weep quietly.

“There, now, Meggon!” A burly villein patted her head. “Don’t cry, lass. Ye’ll be right as rain.”

Turning to Belicaus, the man asked, almost under his breath, “She will, won’t she, Brother? She’s m’wife and I—I do cherish her.”

“Her fate is in Greater Hands than mine, now, but she has a fine caregiver in Hesta here. You can take hope.” The monk spoke gently and gravely to the worried husband.

“If she dies—” The man looked toward the spot where Tode was once more working the grain. “He’ll pay!”

“Would that bring her back to you? Think man. It was an accident. If there’s to be any retribution, leave it to the Hallmote.” Hart thought it time to enter the conversation and defuse the growing anger. He secretly applied the force of his Gifts to his words, hoping fervently that they would be heeded.

“We’ll see,” was all that the tofter would say as he trudged after his wife’s litter toward the Herb Woman’s home.

When Hart turned back to his work, he saw with amazement that Brother Belicaus had quietly taken up Meggon’s fallen swing blade and begun to harvest in her place. There moves a man who lives to serve, no matter the cost to himself, the scrivener thought as he watched the monk move slowly and methodically along the edge of the standing grain, leaving behind a neat row of fallen stalks.

*Him good man!* came the pard’s mental agreement.

The evening’s harvest boon was far more somber than the one before. Workers gathered in small clusters discussing the day’s events. Clearly factions were forming that bode ill for the peace of Under Stamglen. Of this Hart was certain. After the meal he looked about for the monk and, not finding him, decided to go in search of Belicaus to try and determine the true import of the accident.

Finding the monk in his tiny cell at the priory, too weak to do anything but sit and meditate, Hart put in words what had been weighing heavily on his mind.

“Think you that this is another piece of the puzzle of evil, laid upon Stamglen?” He looked earnestly at the quiet brother.

“Perhaps. Indeed it is not a common thing for harvesters to be so unobservant. They all know the danger of injury from the vicious edge of one of those scythes.” He replied thoughtfully.

“Surely Meggon would have heard the swinging and cutting as it came near her.”

“Aye, that is true. But, if, as you suspect, there is Evil afoot, her senses may have been momentarily dulled.” Belicaus stretched out upon the hard shelf that served him for a bed.

“Forgive me, Brother. You are spent from your ministrations this afternoon. I should not have bothered you now.” Hart felt embarrassed at barging in on the weary monk.

“Nay. Think naught of it. If there is more Evil at work, we cannot afford to waste time. My weariness will pass soon. It always does.” Belicaus smiled at the scrivener’s concern.

Hart spent a restless night brooding on the events of the day, coupled with the fact that his enemy was surely marking his movements and likely plotting another attack. At length he rose and lit a taper. If he could not sleep, at least he could go and check on Hesta’s patient.

The humble dwelling was lit only by the soft glow of a banked fire in the pit at one end of its only room. Meggon lay on a pallet nearby, wrapped in Hesta’s best cloak. The herb woman dozed in a chair, while the youth Tode sat cross-legged next to the sleeping patient. He looked up as Hart entered and smiled.

“She’s much better. Seems she doesn’a feel any more pain. Didn’t e’en tak the poppy syrup Hesta offered.”

“That’s good news indeed,” Hart responded quietly. He felt the woman’s brow and was pleased to discover that she had no sign of fever.

“It’s a fair miracle, it is!” The youngster said in a voice husky with awe. “The Brother did it, didn’t he?”

“He had a hand in it, I’m sure. His prayers have truly been answered.” Hart sought to cool the youth’s fervor. It would not do for more rumors to spread of supernatural happenings in Stamglen. There was enough talk in the aftermath of the poisoned well.

“You’re a good lad to give Hesta a break.” The scrivener turned to topic to safer ground.

“’Tis no more than I ought to do, seein I was the cause of this.” Tode ducked his head.

“Well, I think you have learned a valuable lesson and being willing to face up to your mistake is worth something.” Hart smiled. “I don’t doubt that Hesta and Brother Belicaus will put in a word for you at the Hallmote.”

“D’ye think so? It would help a power of a lot.” Tode brightened noticeably.

“I’m quite sure. I will add my testimony, too. But, now I had better leave you to your watching. Much more talk and we might wake both Hesta and Meggon.” Hart patted the lad’s shoulder and stepped back into the nighttime quiet of the vill. He did not have to sense the familiar mind voice to know that his furred companion had joined him.

*Sick better?* Came the silent question.

“Much better, Free-Claw. I believe she has a good chance to recover fully.” Hart felt far lighter in spirit than he had when he entered the cottage.

*Healer much strong.*

“That he is. And much compassionate, too. Did you see him take Meggon’s place in the fields? He was sorely weakened by working the healing, but he still gave of himself.” Hart’s respect for the large monk grew with each encounter.

*We need much power. Big hunt ahead.* The cat always seemed to cut through to the heart of matters.

“Aye, my friend. There is surely a big hunt ahead.” With that the scrivener returned to his loft and had no further difficulty in falling asleep.

 

 

 

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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.