Rusted Armor

By Andre Norton and Caroline Fike

Chapter Twenty-Three

I scarcely dared look but, gripped by a morbid fascination; I managed to observe the bent man lift a bowl filled with the bloody remains of his vile work. This he held aloft and began once more to chant in a throaty voice, clearly invoking a name—one too evil for me to repeat here, but one I had heard once around a shepherd’s fire long ago. I had thought it but a fable, but now—I was not so sure.

The master of eunuchs paced slowly in a halting gait toward my hiding place and from sheer panic I curled in upon myself, striving with all my might to avoid detection. I soon realized I need have no fear of being seen, for the man was blind! He carried the abominable container and carefully placed it almost at my feet, just inside the place of fire.

Backing away a few paces, he continued his incantation and soon there came from the very stones of the pit before me a sheet of yellow flame that coiled snakelike around the offering in the bowl. I thrust my right hand into my mouth and bit down hard to keep from crying out. Already the heat of the fire had begun to wrap me in agony.

Knowing that soon I would succumb to the blaze, I built in my mind a final image of my home. Wishing to die like a man, though uninitiated, I called up the faces of my family and silently bade each goodbye.

As the heat of the conjured fire reached the point of burning away my garment, searing my flesh, I suddenly felt a rush like cooling liquid that seemed to pour over me and pool around my pain wracked feet. In moments the burning ceased and where there had been roaring fire, now a soft grey mist drifted about me.

Thinking I had passed into the next life, I rose and stepped deeper into the welcoming coolness of the clinging cloud. How long I walked, or where—I never knew. Perhaps I lost consciousness from the terrible shock I had experienced in the Caliph’s palace, but in time I seemed to awake, finding myself no longer within stone walls, but lying beside a clear pool into which water trickled musically from rocks above.

How I had come there was an even greater mystery, but I soon discovered that I was not in the afterlife, but very much alive and—hungry. Finding nothing to stay my hunger, I contented myself with taking a deep drink from the pool and looking about to try and determine where I was.

Pacing about the crevice that held the water, I became aware of a musical jingling some distance away. Peering cautiously around the jutting boulder that offered me some cover, I saw a very ancient donkey accompanied by an equally elderly man. Without thinking that there might be danger, I stepped out and called to him.

Strangely the man seemed not at all surprised to find me before him, almost naked and trembling with the effects of fire, hunger and the horror of the past two days.

He spoke softly to his animal and looked at me, compassion wreathing his lined face. “Ah, lad, you look as if you need a friend. Don’t be afraid. Kadiir will help you.”

Thus began my life with the wisest man I have ever known. When at length I could tell him what I had endured, he simply nodded. I begged him to take me back to the place where my father and I had been attacked, but on hearing me describe it, he sadly shook his head.

“My son, there is no point in returning. I know the place; indeed I paused there a day gone. Your father is no longer of this world. The men who took you have seen to that.”

“Th—then he must be given burial rites.” I stammered.

“Be comforted, youngling, for I have seen to that. I have spoken the sacred words and placed him beneath a great high mound of stones. Nothing will disturb his resting place, you can be sure.”

Near overcome with grief, I sat and held my head in my hands. “What am I to do? I have nothing to offer my mother and sisters. They would fare better to find another protector. I am no man initiated.”

The wanderer replied kindly, “You are far more than that. If I read you aright, you will yet serve mankind when the Gift that lies within you matures.”

“Gift?” I replied.

“Yes, it has left its mark upon you. Go yonder and observe.” He pointed back to the pool.

Puzzled, I followed his gesture and gazed into the rippling water. The reflection of my face, though somewhat distorted by the water’s movement, near caused me to tumble in with shock. My hair that had been raven black was now the color of flame and the skin that framed my face appeared as if someone had taken a hot iron and drawn the outline of two broad wings.

****

Ibed Al Zahr paused in the telling to catch his breath and Hart leaned closer to see if he could trace what the chapman had seen so long ago. But if such marks lay there now, they were covered by heavy beard and hair.

“But—but your hair is not the color of flame.” The scrivener protested.

“Nay, that is easily hidden with an application of certain herbs. It would not do for me to announce to the world that I had been so marked.” The chapman smiled.

“Aye, for such a reason I wear this patch.” Hart commented. “But, who was that old man?”

“Kadiir? Merely a wandering merchant like myself now, however he too had Gifts, his greatest being to recognize Power and guide a novice into the proper use of his own Ability. From him I learned both a trade and how to employ my Gift.”

“Like Soorta and Owlglass.” Hart’s comment was not a question.

“Just so.” Ibed agreed.

“How long were you with him?”

“We traveled together for several years, coming finally to the Narid Sea. It was on the shore of that turbulent body of water that he took his leave of me and bade me cross to seek my destiny. I never saw him again, but I carry his image in my heart just as I do that of my lost family.”

The chapman lapsed into silence that Hart was loath to disturb. The scrivener understood the depth of loss surging up within the dark skinned traveler. Had he not felt the similar pain of forfeiting all that had once been dear to him?

“Enough of the morbid past!” Ibed stated with finality. “We must need look to the future. Rest assured that I will link with you, offering what help I may, when you essay to enter the lair of the Dark.”

Meal and tale done, the two men turned back toward Under Stamglen, each lost in thought. They parted, Ibed to return to the inn and Hart to resume his duties for the Reeve.

Moklin was waiting somewhat impatiently when the scrivener arrived, “About time! We are expected at the castle. The harvest report must be tendered to the Steward.”

Tossing a sack of scrolls at Hart, the Reeve strode out of the low doorway and headed up the twisting path to Castle Stamglen. The scrivener followed, mentally shaking off the somber mood that lingered from his nooning with Ibed.

Preparations for Michaelmas were evident when they arrived at their destination. A successful harvest was cause for celebration and dwellers in vill and castle alike would take full advantage of that. More to the point of Hart and Moklin’s visit, was the completion of the Manor’s annual cycle and the beginning of a new year of record keeping.

Steward and Bailiff both met them, appropriately jolly, having already begun partaking of some of the harvest bounty. A newly brewed keg of malt ale occupied a place of honor in the center of the room that served for the management of business at Stamglen Manor.

“Well met, Reeve, come share a pot of ale and let us hear your report.” Attabirch beckoned to a low bench. “You too, scrivener. I hear you have acquitted yourself quite well.”

“That he has!” Moklin took a long pull on the rich flavored ale and leaned back comfortably. “Ask those who have been exposed by this young man and you will hear that he has proven himself indeed valuable to the Manor.” The Reeve beamed as though he were responsible for Hart’s success.

In a way, he was entitled to bask in the scrivener’s accomplishments. Did he not enlist Hart when newly come to the vill? Some might not have been willing to employ a one-eyed scribe who looked somewhat suspicious, always keeping a hood drawn low over his forehead.

“Well, Scrivener Hart, you have not disappointed me. I knew you were a man to be reckoned with when you stood down that beast that would have made mincemeat of me!” Steward Attabirch chuckled at the memory of his narrow escape in the Drowsing Wood.

“He what?” The Bailiff turned to stare more closely at Hart. “I have not heard that tale.”

“That is because you have been off tramping the Manor and enforcing the Lord’s peace.” Attabirch commented. “Everyone else has heard how this fellow arrived to stare down a raging boar that had me in a very dangerous spot.”

“Seems you have no lack of courage, Hart.” The Bailiff comment dryly.

Hart fidgeted at the uncommon attention he was drawing. “I did but do what any man would.”

“Most unarmed men would have taken heel and left me to my fate.” was the Steward’s answer.

“What say you to taking up a post here at the castle, lad?” The Steward inquired, a speculative expression on his face.

“Hold, now!” Reeve Moklin stood abruptly, knocking over his bench. “I need him in the vill!”

“I scarcely think we need his services here, Steward.” The Bailiff joined in. “We have a fine garrison of armsmen and a full complement of servitors.”

Hart could feel a trickle of sweat under his hood as relief spread over him. He wanted access to the castle, but not the opportunity for scrutiny that a fulltime posting would afford.

“I suppose you are right,” Attabirch stood, bringing an end to the meeting. “Come, it is time to make the presentation of the harvest report to Lord Stormund.”

The four men moved, in order of their rank of service, out across the quadrangle to approach the great hall where Stamglen’s Lord and his household assembled for the Ceremony of Harvest Bounty.

Both as a means of providing light for the gathering and warmth against the deepening chill of late autumn, great fires had been lit in either end of the long room. Smoke curled upward toward openings far above in the vaulted ceiling. In honor of the occasion newly sewn banners were stretched across the back of the dais where the elderly Stormund sat on an ornately carven chair.

When at length the four men approached close enough for Hart to get a clear view of the Lord of the Manor, he almost cried out at what his Gifted Eye revealed. Could this be the vigorous man he had served not a year gone? Where he had once been alert to all that occurred about him, the old man now seemed scarcely conscious of being formally addressed by the Steward of Stamglen.

“My Lord Stormund, Protector of Stamglen, Keeper of the Kingdom’s Peace, we beg your leave to present the fruits of the labor of your loyal villeins.” The words of ceremony echoed around the great chamber bring a murmur of approval from the gathering, but had little effect upon the Lord of the Manor.

Hart could see that his face was almost gray and lined more deeply than his years might suggest. When at last one of his household bent over and spoke to him, Stormund seemed to come to himself and spoke in a monotone, stumbling over words.

“You may present—the—the, what did you say? Oh, yes—the harvest bounty.” Unable to complete the response without prompting, the nobleman subsided into a blank expression.

So upset by the faltering answer, Attabirch nearly forgot his next speech. “My—my Lord, we make bold to report that the fields—fields and flocks of Stamglen have yielded plenty.”

At this those gathered in the hall burst into the expected applause, shouting their delight at the news of a successful harvest. When the noise had subsided, servants moved through the throng passing out wine to those of high rank and pots of ale to the lower.

With their task completed and the ceremony concluded, Steward, Bailiff and Reeve withdrew, Hart trailing gratefully in their wake. All were sobered at the evidence of Lord Stormund’s decline. The scrivener did not need his Gift to ascertain that the running of Stamglen Manor had passed from its Lord’s hands to—whom? He feared the answer of that question.

When they had reached Attabirch’s workroom, the Bailiff sat on a bench near the window and sighed heavily. “A sight to fill the heart with dread. What has passed to change our Lord so?”

None answered, so he continued. “Perhaps there is a curse upon this place. Some strange happenings have occurred of late.”

“Are you thinking of the poisoning of the well?” Moklin put in.

“That and other curious things. I cannot remember when harvesters were so careless as to injure another worker at their side. It may be that we have only been victims of ill luck, but I wonder—”

“Well, Bailiff, have you any suggestion as to how we might ward off this ‘ill luck’?” Attabirch asked sharply.

“Mayhap. What if we were to call upon Brother Belicaus to come and recite a blessing over Stamglen Castle against evil, and in so doing bring good upon all the Manor?”

“Yesss. That could not hurt and indeed it might help.” The steward replied thoughtfully.

“Hart, the monk is a friend of yours, is he not?” Moklin asked.

“Aye, we met soon after coming to Stamglen.” Hart felt a prickle in his scalp.

“Then seek him out and ask if he will do this.” The Bailiff gestured impatiently as though to dismiss Hart straight away.

“Yes, sir. I will see to it immediately.” With a sense of deep relief, the scrivener ducked out of the room and left the castle that had taken on a distinct air of doom to his heightened Senses.

It took Hart some time to locate Belicaus, for the tall monk had been called to the bedside of a sick child. The fame of his gift for promoting the healing of others had spread swiftly among the villeins and ensured that he be kept busy ministering to their illnesses.

“Brother, I hesitate to ask you now, for I know you must be weary, but I bear a request from the Bailiff and the Steward of Stamglen.” Hart spoke softly as the monk stretched his long legs from where he had knelt over his patient.

“Oh? What could they want of me? Is someone in the castle ailing?” The firm voice belied the exhaustion that showed all too clearly on his features.

“In a manner of speaking. The whole of Stamglen is sick, my friend, not the least of whom is its Lord himself.” Hart spoke earnestly.

“I fear that such a sickness is beyond my Gift to absorb.” The reply came ruefully.

“True, but the officers’ request is that you simply come and speak a blessing over the Demesne of Lord Stormund.”

“Ah, I see. Perhaps it might be of service. I can but try, though I fear there needs to be a much greater effort expended before the pall of Evil is lifted.” Belicaus face reflected the gravity of his words.

“Yes, of that I too am sure. But, the time is not yet ripe for that. We must prepare carefully for such a confrontation.” Hart knew he spoke truth.

“Then let my service be the beginning of that preparation. Give me some time to regain my strength.”

“Of course. I will take your message to the Bailiff. Rest well, Brother.” Hart gripped the monk’s large hand and left him.

In two days time Belicaus sent word that he was ready for the blessing of Stamglen, but requested that it be kept private. “We need not draw too much attention to ourselves,” was his reasoning.

Meeting in Hart’s favorite glen, the monk, chapman, herb woman and scrivener were joined by Free-Claw. Bidding the pard pass the news to their confederates of the Pact, Soorta and Owlglass, the assembled members stood in a silent circle.

In moments a mist coiled up before them to take the form of their distant companions. “So, it begins,” came the faint voice of the Seeress.

“Yes, Lady Soorta. We will call on the Light to favor us and bless Stamglen.” Belicaus responded.

“It is but a first step.” Hart hastened to add.

“A good one, though!” came the brusque comment of Owlglass who appeared in the mist beside Soorta.

“So, let it be done!” Ibed Al Zahr’s words came with all the force of a proclamation.

Joining hands for a moment before parting, the circle turned and paced silent through the retreating shadows as the false dawn brought a faint glow to the eastern horizon.

Still well before any but the lowest of servants were awake, Belicaus trod softly up the ramp and through the postern gate of Castle Stamglen followed by his friends. All were well known to the gatekeeper, who, though he thought is strange to see them abroad so early, kept his peace and admitted them with a nod.

The small company climbed to the ramparts of the highest of Stamglen’s towers and stood looking over the great castle’s precincts.

“By all that is holy, I call upon the Light to bless, guard and protect this place and all who serve righteousness herein,” intoned the monk who seemed to grow in stature with each word.

He continued, “May Evil find no root and bear no fruit in our midst. Amen!”

“Amen!” echoed the assembled members of the Pact as Hart heard with his mind the like response from Free-Claw and the distant companions.

 

 

 

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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.