Rusted Armor

By Andre Norton and Caroline Fike

Chapter Twenty-Four

Hart was awakened by a great commotion in the room below his loft. Loud invectives floated up his ladder.

*Watch step, Manfriend! Woman not happy.* Free-Claw warned as both crawled from beneath the sheepskin cover that served to warm them on the cold nights of Stamglen’s winter.

“Aye, Free-Claw. It would appear that she is indeed upset, but there’s nothing for it; we must descend and face her wrath. At least it is not likely directed toward us this early.” Hart quickly drew on his warmest hose and tunic, wrapping a heavy cloak about his shoulders. The reeve’s cottage, built from wattle and daub, was somewhat leaky in its joints allowing wind to whistle eerily through cracks in the walls.

It was obvious that the wind was at the bottom or, rather the top of Sal’s distress, for as they scrambled down the ladder Hart could see her vainly attempting to light a fire. The wind that swirled about the drafty room kept snuffing her taper necessitating it to be re-lit repeatedly before she could use it to ignite the cook fire laid in the pit the evening before. What was worse, snow flakes had begun to blow in through the smoke hole to dampen the kindling.

Near the end of her patience, the agitated woman called down dire imprecations upon the stubborn wind and wood as Moklin shoved through the door with a small kettle held on the hooked end of a stout stick.

“Here, here, Sal. Don’t take on so. I have the solution to your problem. Had a feeling that you might find it no easy task to get the fire going this morning, so I took the trouble to step over to the inn and beg some coals.” The reeve tipped the contents of the kettle into the midst of the small stack of kindling and soon the steam from the damp wood was replaced with a heartening crackle as flames licked upward.

“Thank ‘ee, Reeve! I was like to give up and go back to bed.” Sal commented as she set about preparing the morning meal.

“Looks to be a bad ‘un out there,” Moklin reported while the porridge was simmering.

“It’s a deuced inconvenient time for a storm,” came Sal’s reply. “Reminds me of the year me man passed. Snow piled up to the tops of the windows and drifted in s’bad we couldn’t keep warm with the hottest fire.”

“I remember that year,” Moklin looked thoughtful. “I was but a lad.”

“Near a quarter of the villeins lost folk in that ‘un.” Sal spooned up generous dollops of her thick porridge into three wooden bowls and tossed a chunk of bacon to Free-Claw who purred his gratitude between bites.

“Well, this bids fair to be near as bad as that was. We’d best make for the castle. Most like, Steward Attabirch will be needin’ our aid.” Moklin rose and stretched.

“I supposed this will put paid to the Feast of Yuletide.” Hart felt a tinge of disappointment. He remembered the many happy times that occasion had brought to his childhood days in Castle Stamglen.

“Nay. We will do well to ride this one out without serious loss.” The somber expression on Moklin’s face lent weight to his words. “Storms that come hard on the heels of Michaelmas are called by some the ‘Wrath of St. Michael’, being the warrior angel.”

 

“Well, ‘ee must be fightin’ somethin’ fierce, cause it’s a vicious time out there!” Sal commented.

Hart peered ahead as he and the reeve fought their way out of the wind pressed door and struggled against its biting force, made all the more sharp by needles of sleet intermingled with the snow. Already the great trees lining the approach to Stamglen Castle had taken on a coating of ice and the scrivener felt for a moment as if they were passing into a vast ice cave. The wan light of the winter morning scarcely illuminated the scene before them, giving an almost eerie dreamlike cast to the road ahead.

By the time they reached the castle, snow was over their boot tops, turning feet into soggy lumps of pain. They were met by Steward Attabirch and Lord Stormund’s harried bailiff, who wrung his hands, as much from distress as from the penetrating cold that grew in intensity with each passing moment.

Attabirch’s voice sounded muffled against the howl of the wind, “This one has taken us by surprise. We will be fortunate to survive it unscathed!”

“Aye,” Moklin replied, “best send word to the vill that those who have not enough supplies or wood to last through this blow may to come to the castle.”

“But what of the beasts?” Hart wanted to know. “Can we not make a safe place to shelter the flocks and herds?”

“Yesss, that might be well,” the steward responded thoughtfully, “though where, I’m not sure.”

“How about the tournament ground? It is partially fenced already and it would be a simple matter to make it secure.” Hart brightened at the thought.

“Granted, and the grain and fodder is stored nearby. But we must hasten and enlist the villeins. It will take a fair number of men to gather and drive the beasts here.” Attabirch turned and beckoned to an assistant. “You, Hecktor, go with Reeve Moklin and his scrivener. Get some men to help you secure the jousting field for the animals.”

While Moklin left with several armsmen to spread across the vill and dispatch drovers to bring in the cattle and sheep, Hart set out toward the tournament ground with his helpers, stopping to gather ropes and timbers to finish enclosing the area. As they pushed through the rapidly deepening snow, a message came from Free-Claw who turned abruptly and disappeared into the storm.

*Must find mate! Bring to safety.*

“Be careful!” was all that Hart had time to call out as his companion streaked away.

Within an hour the villeins began to straggle into the castle environs, some carrying squalling children, others assisting elderly family members. The more fit men of the vill had eagerly pitched in, helping gather the Lord’s beasts as well as their own and before long the tournament ground just beyond the high curtain wall of Castle Stamglen was alive with milling, bleating and lowing beasts.

Hart and his assistants had fashioned makeshift shelters from the knights’ pavilions at one end of the field nearest the towering castle wall. These they lined with straw, reinforcing them with pine bows. Animals huddled gratefully under the cover, protected somewhat from the bite of the wind driven ice and snow.

From all around the Castle grounds echoed the cracking and groaning of ancient trees as branches strained and gave way under the ever increasing weight of ice. Hart felt a tinge of regret for the toll he knew would be exacted upon Lord Stormund’s fruit trees. The storm of winter foretold a lean bearing season and all would feel the loss, noble and common alike.

Satisfied that everything possible had been done for both animals and people, Hart slogged through the snow and passed beneath the high portcullis of Stamglen. Strange, he thought, I have seen not the first sign of any of the nobles taking part in preparing for the storm. Surely they know the danger. Could it be—? Such lethargy has never been typical of Lord Stormund’s household before. Something is deeply amiss here.

The scrivener’s musing was abruptly broken with the call of a horn, the warning signal. Hastening to the source of the clarion, Hart arrived to hear a chilling report. The lady Arin and her party from Gamlin had been expected to return to Stamglen and indeed were many hours overdue.

The Bailiff of Stamglen climbed up on a mounting block to be heard the better, “I need men to form a search posse! Who will come forth?”

Without hesitation Hart stood forward, along with some men at arms.

“Good! Fetch stout staves and take several kegs of ale with you. If you find the missing folk, they will most likely be in need of restorative.”

As the men set out for the Gamlin Road, Hart was gratified to find the outline of a tall figure looming beside him. Brother Belicaus, wrapped in a heavy robe and bearing a tall staff joined step with him. “’Pears you could use some aid, friends.”

“Gladly!” Hart had to shout to be heard above the wind. As the party crossed the drawbridge a low dark form appeared from the swirling whiteness.

“Free-Claw! Is all well?”

*Mate safe. Not long, Free-Claw be father!* The pard announced, a touch of pride in his mind voice.

“Good! But now we must find the lost travelers. Can you help?” Hart was grateful to have the cat at his side. The demi-pard’s senses, even allowing for Hart’s Gifts, were far superior and would prove invaluable in the difficult search conditions.

*Free-Claw find.* The confidence of the response came as no surprise to either monk or scrivener.

In truth, had not the pard been leading them, the searchers would soon have joined the ranks of the lost themselves. Increasing in intensity, the storm rapidly blotted out all but the closest shapes and, before they had traveled half a league, the road disappeared beneath an ice crusted blanket of white.

Going became more and more difficult as the icy coating broke unevenly, plunging men thigh deep in the wet snow. Hose soon became tattered and damp, exposing tender skin to the frosty air and ice cuts. Hart gritted his teeth at the pain and, bending almost double, kept a tight mental link with Free-Claw.

“How far, Friend? Have you any hint of our quarry?” Hart knew the other searchers were growing more and more skeptical of success in finding the lost party.

*Have scent. Not too far. Much trouble!* The cat’s mind voice had never felt so desperate.

“The pard has made contact!” Hart shouted, egging on the weary men.

At length they reached a tight copse of fir trees, beneath which huddled those whom they had been seeking. It soon became clear why the Lady Arin and her group had not reached Stamglen. For five people—the Lady, her brother and three armsmen—there was but one remaining horse.

“My Lady, what happened?” Hart bent close to her to make himself heard.

“Some strange beast from the wildwood burst upon us just after the storm broke driving our mounts fair mad with fear. We were all tossed from the saddle and my brother Dunken struck his head. I fear—!” Her words died as the toll of the hours, spent in cold and fear, came full upon her.

The monk crouched over the still form of the Lady’s brother, passing his huge hands over the man’s chalk white face. “He is almost gone. We must get him to shelter soon!”

There was nothing for it but to tie the injured man upon the one remaining horse and turn their faces back toward Stamglen. Two of the castle armsmen took charge of the mount, being careful to keep its burden as secure as possible as the animal struggled through the drifting snow.

Belicaus took Arin under his voluminous cloak and, ducking his head, plowed steadily along behind the horse, while Hart and another castle man assisted Lady Arin’s exhausted and near frozen retainers to follow.

How they managed the screaming, frigid agony of the wild winter storm to reach safe haven in Stamglen, Hart was never quite sure. He found himself drawing strength from a shadow presence, barely sensed, dimly aware of Free-Claw’s mental encouragement:

*Pact with us! Make safety.*

As the party finally staggered across the drawbridge, their footsteps swallowed by the howl of the storm, shouts rang out from those brave enough to keep watch for them. Welcoming warmth was near too much for frostbitten hands, feet and faces, but in time the pain subsided and Hart settled into a cozy haze brought on by generous drafts of hot mulled cider.

The scrivener awoke to the sounds of weeping. He sat up from his pallet before the fire in the castle kitchen and listened. Did he truly hear that or was it from the world of his dreams? Intent upon finding the source of the sense of grief and loss that now flowed over him in near palpable waves, Hart rose somewhat unsteadily and walked into the dark corridor leading to the family quarters.

He could see ahead a cluster of figures outside a chamber door. Hastening as best he could with a slight hangover, Hart mingled with the servants that stood talking among themselves. Paying little attention to the scruffy appearance of the scrivener, they continued their conversation.

“Never ‘ad a chance, I says. ‘E was good as dead when they brought ‘im in.”

“Oh, aye. ‘Twas the look of death, I’ll warrant.” Two serving women seemed to relish the dire exchange.

“Please,” Hart interrupted, “can you tell me what has happened?”

“Where ‘ave ye been, mon? ‘Is Honor, Sir Dunken has died in the Lady Arin’s arms. Even the tall Brother could na’ save ‘im.” A wrinkled face looked out at Hart from beneath a severely drawn wimple.

“Strange,” the second woman put in, “M’ Lady didn’t seem to care a bit neither. She just stood up and, patting down her skirts where they was rumpled, sort of marched out of the room and never looked back.”

“What’s more, it’s bruited about that there was Dark magics involved!” The younger woman seemed to take delight in the recounting of the juicy rumor.

“I—I see. Is the monk still within?” A chill, not from the drafty cold of the castle, passed through Hart. This was not what he wanted to hear, especially the account of Arin’s reaction.

“Nay, ‘e went up t’ chapel not more than a turn of the glass after the word came out.” His informant rolled her eyes as if it was a hopeless task Belicaus had set himself, going to pray.

“My thanks.” Hart turned and hurried to find the Brother. He must hear what Belicaus had to say about the rumor.

Finding the tall monk kneeling before a tiny altar, illuminated by several smoking candles, Hart stood quietly for some moments, waiting for his friend to acknowledge him. He knew that Belicaus was fully aware of his presence. At length the low murmur of the Brother’s voice ceased and he rose wearily, turning a face upon the scrivener that clearly showed the toll of the hours just past.

“You have heard?”

“Aye. But is it true? Do you believe Dark Arts are behind Dunken’s death?” Hart dreaded the answer.

“There is no doubt. When I attempted to join with his mind and spirit, I found only a seared trail of destruction.” Belicaus sank heavily to a bench at the rear of the small chapel. “It was far too late to undo the damage. Indeed his life winked out the instant I tried to reach him.”

Before Hart could respond to the monk’s revelation, a sharp voice cut through the quiet of the room.

“You there, Belicaus! You have much to answer for! I charge you with misuse of your Order. You dabble in things forbidden and now a nobleman has paid with his life!”

The strident accusation thrust Hart and his friend near into shock as the short, stout form of Father Corman waddled toward them.

“Father Corman! You are mistaken,” Hart spoke up immediately, remembering to put all the force of his Gifts behind the statement. “Brother Belicaus was merely seeking to minister to a badly injured man, one who was already at death’s door.”

“Well—that’s not—” The portly priest began to stammer as the full force of the Emerald Eye played upon him.

The monk beckoned toward the bench beside him and the little priest sank gratefully to the seat. “I—forgive me. It’s just that I was so upset when I heard the report that Sir Dunken was dead!” Father Corman mopped his brow with his sleeve despite the chill of the chapel.

“Indeed, it is cause for much grief whenever a young and promising knight is lost.” Belicaus returned.

“It is far more than that!” The priest snapped.

“Oh?”

“Yes. You see, since I am keeper of the records of births, deaths and the like at the Abbey of St. Stam, I am in the position to know things.” Father Corman seemed to hesitate before saying more.

“And?” Belicaus encouraged him to continue.

Looking around as though fearing to be overheard, the corpulent priest burst out, “This is a great disaster! Sir Dunken’s death means that there is now no male heir to the Lordship of Stamglen. He was the only survivor of the last remaining cadet line. With him died our hopes!” Dropping his head upon his chest, the stout man was overcome with sobs.

“But—surely there is some hope?” Hart joined in.

“Nay. There is only the certainty that Lord Stormund’s Manors will pass to the Crown and all the holdings will most like be broken up and distributed among other Lords. Life as we have known it for generations in Stamglen will end when Lord Stormund passes.” The words echoed with a doleful sound from the high ceiling of the chapel.

Hart and Belicaus looked at one another and though no words were spoken, each knew the other’s thoughts: the net of Evil is drawing inward. Surely as though declared from the highest tower, it was obvious that a Dark plan lay at the bottom of this tragedy.

“I—I must go and pray,” stammered Father Corman. Rising shakily he continued down the aisle to lower himself with a grunt to the kneeling rail before the altar. With a glance and a nod Belicaus also resumed his feet and slipped quietly out of the thick oaken door, Hart close on his heels.

“We can put it off no longer. The time has come to seek the malevolent source that lies in the bowels of this castle.” The monk’s words were so quiet that had Hart not been at his shoulder, he would have missed them altogether.

“Aye, Brother. Now that we are shut in for the duration of the storm, perhaps there will be opportunity for just such a quest.” Even as he responded, Hart felt a bone deep chill and the stirrings of fear such as he had not known, even during the days of his Ordeal.

 

 

 

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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.