Rusted Armor

By Andre Norton and Caroline Fike

Chapter Twenty-One

Wearier than he remembered being for a great while, Hart dragged himself from his pallet the final day of harvest. To his considerable relief, nothing more exciting than the discovery of a few gore-rat nests disturbed the day’s tranquility. Free-Claw endeared himself to the harvesters by speedily dispatching the pests.

*Harvest good!* the pard exclaimed, for reasons quite different from the assessment of his human companion.

“If you mean the rat harvest, my friend, I could tell by all the crunching and purring I heard from your direction.” Hart laughed at his four-legged friend’s comment.

One event caused considerable excitement among the villeins. To the amazement of all, except Hart, Belicaus and Hesta, Meggon returned to her place in the fields and joined in the harvesting, with no sign of a limp and no lessening in the vigor of her swings with her blade. A mixture of delight and awe greeted her return, especially among those who had seen her wound the day before. The tall monk was the object of many furtive glances and when he calmly returned the looks, somewhat embarrassed grins wreathed the harvesters’ faces.

“Another legend has been born, Brother.” Hart remarked.

“Alas, it is unavoidable. It is quite impossible to hide the consequences of some Gifts and mine is no exception.” Belicaus surveyed the workers ruefully. He would gladly have kept his work secret if he could.

Indeed the grain harvest was very good, great even. It would require many cart loads to convey the newly threshed barley, rye and wheat to the storehouses of Lord Stormund. At least the Evil, apparently long active in Stamglen Manor, did not seem to extend to ravish the fruits of the fields. For this Hart was exceedingly thankful. The prospect of a winter without adequate supplies stored up against the long lean months would not have been a pleasant one.

Even the scrivener could remember years during his fosterage when it had been just so. Though the occupants of the castle felt only a slight pinch in that they perhaps did not have quite as much ale to fulfill their needs as was wont, the peasants, he knew, suffered bitter privation to the point of starvation and were reduced to eating whatever they could forage. The old, weak and very young often did not make it through such a season.

But this year promised to be far better. There would be rejoicing and celebration at the festival of winter solstice to come, for no one need go without food and drink.

Hart finished tallying the harvest and returned to his workbench to write up the accounts. Just as he finished, his employer strode in, a satisfied expression on his lean face.

“Well, Scrivener, a good job was done by all. I think this calls for a day off.” Moklin took the scrolls from Hart and did not bother to check them, such was his confidence in the scrivener’s work.

“My thanks, Reeve. I could use a bit of a break. The harvest, coming hard on the heels of my trip to Nether Weir Set, did set me back somewhat.” Hart cleaned his nibs and restored them carefully to their box. Nodding to Moklin, he paused to fetch a supper of bread, cheese and a pot of ale, then climbed gratefully to his loft, thinking how he might spend the morrow. Ah, he thought, I know just what to do. There’s a quiet spot I discovered on one of my treks with Owlglass—

*Free-Claw come too?* The pard never missed an opportunity.

            “Aye, my furred friend, I would not dare to enter the forest without you at my side.” Hart allowed a mental chuckle to accompany his message.

*Good. Now rest.* In a few moments, the cat slipped through the open door and streaked up the ladder to join Hart in his loft. The scrivener offered him a bite of cheese in welcome, which the small pard received with relish, daintily consuming it and licking a paw afterwards to clean his whiskers.

All in all, it has been a good day, Hart thought as he nestled under the blanket on his pallet, joined by the warm shape of the demi-pard, whose purrs vibrated against his side lulling him into dreamless sleep.

Awaking to the weight of his four-legged companion on his chest, Hart felt the slight prick of the cat’s claws, kneading him. *Sleep all day, no have fun.*

“All right, all right. I’m up.” Hart laughed as he tumbled the pard off of himself and scrambled to his feet.

He bathed quickly, not wanting to waste any of the precious daylight, and slid down the ladder to the warmth of the room below. Sal and Moklin had obviously been up and busy much earlier, for a kettle of porridge was left simmering on a hook over the coals in the fire pit. Just enough remained for Hart to break his fast.

The scrivener placed his empty bowl into a wooden bucket, which Sal had filled with water and left in the corner by the door. Snatching his cloak from another hook, he strode out into the chill of the autumn morning and turned toward the Gamlin Road.

His destination was a brisk hour’s walk away and he signaled for Free-Claw to leave the road where it was intersected by an almost indistinguishable path leading off to the left. Following the path until it disappeared into a thicket, he turned right and moved along the tangle of briars for a score of paces. Finding what he had been seeking, a gnarled tar oak, Hart ducked beneath its low hanging branches, being careful not to allow them to brush against him and deposit their dark sticky sap on his cloak.

*Place must be very good. This trek much trouble.* The pard grumbled.

“Why, Free-Claw, a seasoned hunter like you should not mind rough territory.”

*Not hunting now.* Came the dry response.

“True, but we do seek a very special spot. You will see.” Hart chuckled.

At length they came to a tiny stream that curled in and out among low growing willows and cone reeds. Before they had traveled more than a hand of paces, the pard flushed a rock coney.

*Now hunt!* was all that the cat conveyed before leaping off in pursuit of prey.

“Enjoy your hunt!” Hart called, relieved that his friend had found something to occupy him. He realized that the pard would probably not have appreciated his find since it didn’t involve stalking or pouncing.

The scrivener continued on through the ever thickening forest, careful to keep the stream in view. He knew he was close to his destination when the small brook broadened out and the forest opened to form a miniature glen. The mid morning sun cast a shaft of golden light across the opening and Hart’s pulse quickened at the beauty surrounding him. Just beyond that large willow on the edge of the stream was what he sought, however—

Floating to him on the morning breeze came—music! An unmistakably familiar voice, accompanied by the haunting sounds of a viele: Brydwen! How—?

Annoyed at his secret place having been discovered, Hart plunged toward the music. He burst out onto a broad rock that overhung the lazy brook, to find the Bard stretched luxuriously across his place.

At his sudden appearance, she squeaked and bowed a discord on her instrument.

“You! How—what—?” Brydwen’s eyes were large with astonishment.

“I might ask the same question.” Hart couldn’t suppress his disgust. “I found this place months ago. Little did I expect to find you here.”

“Well, I don’t see your mark of ownership upon it. I have as much right to be here as you!” The lovely bard’s voice betrayed the heat of her anger.

For several moments the two glared at each other until—suddenly and simultaneously both burst into laughter. How ridiculous they both must appear!

When at length he could get his breath, Hart spoke. “I’m sorry. It—it was just such a shock to find you—anyone—here when I thought no one knew of it but me.”

“It is a lovely spot, isn’t it?” Brydwen’s voice came more calmly now. “I discovered it quite by accident when my tree cat ran off.”

“Tree cat? I didn’t know anyone could tame one of them.” Hart responded.

“I didn’t tame her. She simply came to me one day when I was alone and grieving for—but that would not interest you.” The bard quickly turned away, not wishing him to see the moisture that had slid down her cheek.

“Did you find her?” The scrivener somehow wanted her to keep talking.

“Well, she found me after I ended up here. You see, she has a lair nearby, up among those boulders.” She pointed to the far side of the brook where a scree of tumbled stones clearly offered many possible denning places.

“I thought they nested in trees.” Hart was puzzled.

“Normally they do, but she had been injured and when she was ready to bear her kits, she had to find a safe place that didn’t require climbing.”

“Oh. But where is she now?”

“I let her return to the wild. It would have been cruel to force such an independent creature to live confined in the castle.” She smiled timidly.

“That was kind of you. Not many folk would consider the feelings of an animal over their own desires.” Hart was really beginning to like this slender girl.

“What became of the kits?” he asked.

“Oh, they grew rapidly and all have ventured off on their own. My friend comes to visit me here from time to time, though. It’s as if we are—somehow—bonded.” A distant look passed over the lovely features.

“Yes. I know what you mean. My friendship with Free-Claw is like that.”

“Oh, that’s the demi-pard you rescued. Belicaus told me his story. That took a lot of bravery, standing up to the beast tamer.” Brydwen unconsciously fluttered her lashes as she complimented Hart, causing a responding tremble deep in his chest.

“I was just so angry, there was no time to think of danger, simply act.” A slight flush rose from the scrivener’s collar to spread over his cheeks.

“Nevertheless, you could have been seriously injured—even killed!” Brydwen’s voice drooped very low as though that possibility disturbed her greatly.

“Well, as you see, I came through it unscathed. What’s more I have made a lasting friendship with a loyal companion.” Hart tried to keep his response light. He did not quite know how to handle the emotion that seemed to be rising between them.

*Manfriend lucky!* The pard’s usual pithy comment nearly undid Hart.

“A certain pard was lucky too!” He shot back a mental reply, not to be outdone.

When no further communication was forthcoming from Free-Claw, Hart spoke to Brydwen again.

“Would you—would you care to play for me?” He gestured toward her viele where it lay beside her on the sun-warmed stone.

Smiling, she took up a crude bow and deftly executed an upward spiraling chord. “Have you a preference?”

“Something to match this place—quiet and beautiful.” He replied.

With that she launched into a softly haunting melody that seemed to reach into Hart’s very soul and set it to vibrating with the ancient fiddle’s strings. What was happening to him? This flame haired girl had quite bewitched him—but he could not—would not be entangled in an affair of the heart! He knew not what another day might reveal, nor could he offer anything to her. As these thoughts roiled in his mind, the loveliness of the day seemed to sour about him.

Sensing the change in his mood, Brydwen suddenly stopped her melody. “Hart, what is it? You look as if you have seen a wight!”

“I—forgive me—it’s just—” The words trailed off as he realized that he could hardly tell her the truth.

Before he could find a way to explain, a high pitched shriek tore through the quiet of the glade, nearly tumbling them both into the stream. Leaping up, they looked in the direction of the sound and saw two small shapes poised as though frozen, staring at one another, one black, the other tawny.

“Free-Claw!” Hart shouted.

Almost simultaneously Brydwen cried out, “It is my tree cat.”

But before the two humans could move to interfere in what appeared an impending fight, the pard’s mind voice reached Hart in an emphatic warn-off, *Seek mate! No come.”

“Oh.” Hart responded lamely, then burst out laughing.

Brydwen rounded on him, “What is so funny? He could kill her.”

“I think that is highly unlikely. He has something quite different on his mind. How long since she weaned her litter?”

“How—what has that to do with it? Oh—I see.” Brydwen had the grace to blush as the two cats circled each other on stiff legs, then streaked off to disappear among the boulders.

“Yes, I think there will soon be some little tree pards, or is it demi-tree cats?” Hart chuckled.

“Semi-demi-pards, more like.” Overcoming her embarrassment, Brydwen burst out laughing at her pun.

“Perhaps we could name one of them Quaver.” Hart could scarcely speak for the mirth that seized both of them.

“How about Breve?” Not to be outdone, the bard continued the banter.

“Breve?” Hart looked puzzled.

“It is a long note, while quaver is a shorter one. See, it is made thus.” She scratched with a pebble on the boulder where they had resumed their seats.

“I see. My knowledge of music is quite limited, it seems.” He smiled at her.

“Not at all. Few would have understood my pun, let alone come back with that name so swiftly. Methinks you are more than you appear.” It was Brydwen’s turn to look quizzically at the scrivener.

“One picks up all sorts of knowledge when trained by a churchman,” was all he would say.

“Perhaps, but you have not really responded to my comment.” An even more calculating expression played about the piercing green eyes.

Anxious to turn the conversation away from himself, Hart asked, “But, tell me, how learned you so much of music?”

A thoughtful expression passed over Brydwen’s features. “There was a gleeman who often visited my grandsire’s shop when I was growing up. As far back as I can remember I was fascinated by his performing. He was truly gifted, for, not only did he sing, dance, act and play many instruments, he was also a luthier.”

“A what?” Hart had much to learn, it seemed.

“A luthier—maker of musical instruments,” she replied.

“And he became your teacher.” It was not a question.

“Exactly. One year he was very late arriving at our village, so he had to winter over with us, the roads being no longer passable. I was about eight years old and must have made a very pest of myself plying him with questions and begging to touch just one of his instruments. He gently refused to let me ‘play’ with his large ones, but to my sheer delight and eternal gratitude, when Yuletide came around, I discovered what he had been doing out in my grandsire’s cow byre for so long.”

“What?” Hart was fully involved in her tale.

“He had built me a small viele, just my size!” The joy of the memory shown even now on her face.

“And then he had to stay long enough to teach you to play.”

“He remained even past the thaw and into spring. When he left, I had learned the rudiments of the viele, as well as several flutes, which he had whittled for me also. He taught me to read notation, such as is used in the great monasteries.”

“A wonderful gift indeed.” Hart shared in the pleasure of Brydwen’s memories, as though he had stood by and observed the events in person.

“Yes. It was a great comfort in my childhood and later. You see, my parents died when I was too young to remember them and, having no brothers and sisters, I was often lonely for companionship other than what my grandsire could offer, though he loved me dearly.” The lovely green eyes misted slightly.

“Then Brother Belicaus came on the scene.” Hart added.

“How—? Oh, he told you.” She smiled.

“Yes, he did share with me how he came to return just before your grandsire passed. Did you find it difficult to leave your home and go off with that strange monk?” Hart wanted to know.

“No—it was curious. From the moment I first saw him, I knew somehow that we were linked. It was not until some time later that I learned he was my uncle. But—I think I would have accompanied him, no matter what, even if we were not kin. He is a wonderful man.” The simple conviction of Brydwen’s words touched Hart.

“Aye. I have never met his like before. It is a privilege to know him and to work with him, I might add.” Hart looked up to see the shadows beginning to creep across the glade.

“Yes, it grows late and we’d best be going,” she put in.

“It would not do to be caught out in this country in the night. There are many dangers hereabout.” Hart knew that from experience.

 

 

 

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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.