Rusted Armor

By Andre Norton and Caroline Fike

Chapter Twenty-Two

It was some time before Hart could return to the study of the ancient documents in his possession. When last he had looked at them, it had been clear that they contained more than the natural eye could fathom. Wishing to be very certain of his suspicions, he now spread them out beside his pallet and set several candles around the edges, being careful not to allow wax to drip on the precious pages.

Laying aside his eye patch and shifting his Cap of Knowledge to rest more securely on his head, he thought to add one more step to his preparations. He took a thread he had pulled from the hem of his cloak and attached it to the handle of his wand. Now he had a seeking tool that might just help him hone in on the secrets of Castle Stamglen.

Sitting cross-legged on the edge of his pallet, Hart leaned closer to the chart of the castle’s storage area. As before, the outlines, evident at first glance, were of row upon row of storage bins and places for barrels, but in a few moments these disappeared completely, leaving quite a different view.

It was as if a page had been turned revealing a diagram of rooms and passages Hart knew were not in any area where he had ever been. Bending lower, he traced a fine line that seemed to be a guide of sorts. It looked almost like the slime trail a pit snail might leave, but it was no random wandering. It appeared to begin just at the place he had last seen Lazarous’ men with their lovely captive.

But how did they access that lower level? Hart could clearly define the secret area, but was no closer to discovering its entry. Straightening up to rest his protesting back muscles, he pondered the puzzle.

In a moment or two the scrivener resumed his study, this time grasping the thread and holding the wand, stone end downward, above the plan of the castle. Slowly the tip, with the Dhroghii’s gift clasped inside, began to swing in uneven arcs across the face of the ancient parchment. With each pass more detail became visible. Finally the magical tool shuddered and stopped, pointing rigidly at a single spot. Even the thread clasped in Hart’s hand went stiff as though becoming part of the wood.

Nearly dropping the wand in his excitement, Hart twisted around to see the place it revealed. As he expected, it indicated the spot where his quarries had been lost to him, only now there glowed on the page a tiny sigil. It was like none he had ever seen, but he recognized it nonetheless: an eye, colored not unlike his own, gazed up at him, so vivid, he expected it to blink. This must be the key!

Knowing that he had only begun to delve the mysteries, Hart spread out the scrap of leather he had discovered with the wand. Smoothing it carefully, he once more applied the wand as a pendulum. Faint outlines began to sharpen and he realized he was looking at a map of the entire castle precinct. Again the peeling back of layers, in response to his Gifted Gaze, led him deep beneath the central keep. But this time something further was revealed by his wand.

The glowing tip pointed unerringly at a small chamber, do deep that it appeared to lie many levels below the storage vault. At first it showed as a dark blot, but as the Dhroghii stone acted upon it, the area seemed to come alive in a repulsive way, roiling and churning like the cauldron of some ancient necromancer. One moment it was sooty black and the next it transformed into the color of—blood!

Curious symbols began to manifest around the edges of the leather unlike any the scrivener had seen before. Neither runes nor letters, still they seemed to convey meaning—but none that he could fathom.

A deep chill passed over Hart as he realized the significance of what he was now seeing. If the wand showed true, the danger he faced was far greater than any he had imagined. Trembling, the scrivener lifted the wand away from the aged map. Leaving the scrap of leather lying on the floor, he stood and slowly moved about to snuff all but one candle. Finally, when the documents had returned to their normal appearance, he placed them once more into their hiding place, bowing in appreciation to the tiny spiders that seemed to be waiting for him to finish.

Tucking the wand into a small leather sheath he had purchased for it, Hart stretched on his pallet. I must have help, he thought. I dare not front such Evil alone!

Long and long it was before the scrivener slept and when he did, his dreams were tense and troubled. Scenes passed through his mind that caused him to recoil and curl in on himself like a defenseless babe. Sometime in the night the pard slipped softly in to join him and, sensing the man’s turmoil, rested his head on Hart’s chest. The Gifted animal began to purr, at the same time sending quieting thoughts to his friend’s mind, so that finally the scrivener was freed from the grip of nightmares.

When his work was completed the next day, Hart set out in search of the Chapman Ibed Al Zahr. Somehow, he knew that the merchant, who had traveled so many strange roads, would have wise counsel for him.

Finding him behind the inn, feeding and grooming his donkey, Hart spoke softly, “Ibed, my greetings to you. Have you time to talk with me? I need your advice.”

“Of course, Scrivener. I would be honored. Will you join me in a meal?” The merchant bowed and executed the ritual salute of his people.

“If we can take it somewhere to speak privately,” Hart responded.

“That offers no problem. I will instruct the alewife to put some food in a pack and we will find a quiet place.” The dark man smiled and strode back into the inn to carry out his intent.

The two walked for some time until they came to a solitary oak that spread its branches beside a low dry stone wall, forming a shady nook that sheltered them from the incessant wind that swept across the moor above. Settling down, Ibed handed Hart a portion of bread, hard cheese and some cold mutton. To this he added a small wineskin and bid the scrivener partake.

When they had both satisfied the hunger sharpened by their walk, the chapman spoke. “So, my friend, what is your request? I will endeavor to help however I may.”

Hart recounted what he had uncovered in his latest examination of the ancient chart and map, ending by spreading his hands wide in a gesture of pleading. “I know that which lies beneath Castle Stamglen is well beyond my small Power. I have been admonished, more than once, not to venture into danger without support. So, I seek just such from you. How am I to enter that place of the Dark and remain safe?”

“A deep and desperate question, indeed!” The dusky skinned man replied. “What you have described puts me in mind of something that chanced in my life many, many years ago.”

“Does it have bearing on the present Evil?” Hart wanted to know.

“In the sense that all Evil is related, it does. Furthermore, such Dark Power must be fronted with purity of motive and unity of purpose.” The merchant looked thoughtfully at his companion.

“By all that is holy, my motive is simply to bring an end to the gnawing blight that threatens the good folk of Stamglen!” Hart responded earnestly.

“I know that and so do all the members of the Pact. We are bound together by the same desire.” Ibed smiled.

“You spoke of your own experience. Will you share it with me that I might perhaps learn thereby?” The scrivener waited quietly for an answer.

Moments passed as if the chapman battled with memories too dark to call forth, but at length he nodded. “It is not something I take pleasure in remembering. However, my first brush with the Power of Evil opened a door to my own Gift and for this I am grateful.” Settling himself more comfortably against the ancient tree trunk, Ibed Al Zahr began his account.

****

It was in the year 605 after the Crossing, when my ancestors had ventured over the vast warm sea to seek new lands. I was the proud first son of a tribal chieftain among the Sylmyaad. As I approached the day of my initiation into the mysteries of manhood, my mind was full of dreams—dreams of the great golden city of Ab-Mendalym.

Counting the days until my trip that would culminate in a solemn ceremony to proclaim to all the world that I had reached my full stature, I could scarcely sleep at night for excitement. For twelve summers I had dwelt in the tents of my mother and her maidens, subject to the whims of the female members of our clan. Mind, it was not an unpleasant life, but one I felt was quite beneath me, now that I was a man-grown!

Before dawn on the momentous day, I arose, bathed and donned the traditional black robe of the man-candidate. My father stood outside of the tent, two tall camels towering over him. A shiver of foreboding passed through me, but I shook it off, thinking it only the nervousness of anticipation. Little did I know!

We rode together toward the distant city, passing through miles of desolate country peopled by naught but four legged denizens of the wasteland. At least, this was what I assumed. The length of our journey required that we spend one night camped on the way, so my father led me to a low cave where he had spent the eve of the initiation ceremony in his youth. This he recounted in a soft voice as we sat before a small fire that warmed the chill night and served to warn off any inquisitive animals.

Though I was certain I would never find sleep, the weariness of long hours astride the great swaying beast took its toll and I nodded off soon after finishing our evening meal.

Sometime in the night I was violently awakened by a piercing scream and something that stank of sweat and beast scent was dropped over my head. Trussed like some prey animal, I was tossed, belly down, over a pack animal. I could tell by its odor, this was not my camel.

Fear and misery replaced all of my previous joyful anticipation as the hours dragged painfully by. I must have passed in and out of consciousness several times, for it was dark when my captors finally came to a halt. Someone grabbed me roughly and I could feel a bony shoulder in my stomach as my head dangled low, keeping the blood pounding in my temples.

The cover that had blinded me was removed, but the place of my imprisonment was so dark that I still could see nothing. More hours in an agony of thirst and confusion passed. I could hear distant murmurs, but no voices were clear enough to determine even the language spoken.

My hands and feet were tightly bound with leather thongs before the odorous blindfold had been removed, so that I could scarcely bear the pain in them by the time someone finally came to fetch me.

I squinted, trying to make out the face of the man who entered my miserable cell, but the glare of the rising sun behind him blinded me. I cringed and tried to shield my eyes from the pain of the light.

“On your feet, knife-meat!” came the harsh command.

I would have scooted away, but a long whip snaked out and sliced my bare leg, for my proud robe had been torn away, leaving me only a loin cloth for a covering. Biting my tongue against the sting, I rose.

With the keeper’s whip flicking at my heels I stumbled out into the light. When my eyes grew accustomed to the brightness, I realized that I was being shoved toward a line of youths, not much different in age from myself. In moments we were all shackled together and forced to march toward the west.

I remember little of the remaining journey only that it grew more painful with each mile. When we were allowed a few moments of rest, but still nothing to quench the roaring thirst, the ragged line would collapse in the dust.

Finally, after what seemed an eternity of shuffling along, we reached a high walled enclosure. Here we were unshackled and examined by an immensely fat man in a red robe. He prodded each youth and mumbled something to a scribe who followed in his wake, making marks on a tablet of clay.

When the examinations were complete, several of us were herded toward a pen and told to sit on the ground. Grateful for a respite, most drifted into a near stupor, but I could find no way to rest. When the gate to our pen opened it revealed a large, high wheeled wagon standing outside. We were then directed to climb up into this conveyance, to be drawn by a team of mules to—we did not yet know where.

The sun was setting when we recognized our destination—the fabled Ab-Mendalym! I knew it from descriptions my mother had recounted from the time I could understand spoken words. But this was not the way I had expected to enter the golden city!

Rumbling along a narrow street, I could see that much of the glitter of the place was only in the telling of tales. Filth and foul odors surrounded us until our wagon entered what seemed to be the back gate of a great stronghold, perhaps even a palace.

Herded into a narrow chamber, we were relieved of our shackles at last and most sat rubbing the sores that had so quickly developed beneath them. After a brief interval two men in short robes passed among us dispensing water and the first food I had seen since capture. Without speaking, the servants (for this was clearly their position) bent to apply a sticky substance to our chaffed ankles and wrists. The unexpected kindness came closer to breaking my determination to remain aloof than any of the harsher treatment I had experienced.

At length we were taken, one by one, from the chamber to what I soon discovered was a bathing room. There we were scrubbed clean and given tunics similar to those of the serving men.

Next we were directed into a room filled with shelves on which rested pots and basins of many sizes, each containing some mysterious substance. From most of these there rose odors that mingled and caused our noses to tingle and eyes to water. In the far end of the space stood a low bench on which were spread instruments equally unrecognizable to me, save to realize that most bore extremely sharp edges or points. The hairs on my neck began to prickle and I was seized with a deep and nameless dread.

There were about a score in the group I had been thrust into. Fearing our fate, I edged slowly to the back rank of the gathered youths. Trying to appear disinterested, I cautiously swept my gaze about the room. Near where I stood there was a dark and soot stained opening in the stone wall, clearly a fire pit.

In front of the group of imprisoned boys, a crook-backed man began to speak in a quavering voice. “Young men, you have this day been chosen to enter the service of the great Caliph Rugeem, Supreme Ruler and Potentate of Ab-Mendalym!” His words came slowly with emphasis on the titles as if to put his audience in awe and cause them to forget fear and anger at having been taken violently.

A corporate intake of breath gave evidence that most were indeed impressed, but I, for one, was not. Deep within me rose a certain knowledge that such service would surely come at a terrible price.

I drew further back into the shadows, thankful that no one was behind us, so confident were they that we could and would not attempt to flee. After all, whence should we turn? All knew the impregnable stronghold of Rugeem. His captives did not escape, not alive at any rate.

Managing to slip into the maw of the fire pit, I narrowly missed the entry of several huge men. I could see two of them take hold of the first of the youths and march him to the bench, while others pushed the remaining group back, pinning them in a tight bunch near my hiding place.

What occurred next confirmed my deepest fear. Chanting in a strange guttural language, the crouch-backed man held aloft a gleaming knife while the servants thrust the boy onto the bench, two holding his arms and shoulders and two spreading apart his legs.

I could not see what occurred next, but the scream of the victim and the answering cries of the waiting group were enough to tell me what lay in store. None of the captive youths would ever know manhood or father sons of their own. In an obscene ceremony, totally opposite of that I had been anticipating, the youngsters were being made eunuchs.

Panic seized me and I groveled in the ashes, covering myself with the grime of many past fires, praying all the while that I would escape discovery and somehow manage to evade that terrible knife!

My greatest fear was that the master of the knife would count heads and realize that one of his subjects was missing, however when the last boy had been taken screaming from the chamber, he dismissed the rest of his assistants and stood looking at his dripping knife.

 

 

 

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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.