Rusted Armor

By Andre Norton and Caroline Fike

Chapter Twenty-Five

No further evidence of the Dark influence upon Stamglen being forthcoming, Hart found no immediate opportunity to delve in the bowels of the castle. In a hand of days all ice had receded from the trees and roads, allowing surfs to return to their homes to discover what the storm had left in its wake.

The scrivener was thankful to find that the Reeve’s house and grounds had come through relatively unscathed, save for some broken branches lying about. More fortunate than many of the poor villeins, who had lost most of the thatch from their roofs in the fierceness of the storm winds, Moklin was able to take up residence again with a bit of cleanup.

Hart did discover, however, that his piliasse had been thoroughly soaked by the melting of snow and ice, which had filtered through cracks under the eaves. With a sigh of resignation the scrivener tugged the sodden pallet down the ladder and turned its contents into the dooryard. Hanging the cover to dry near the fire that Sal now kept roaring at all hours, he called to her that he was off to fetch more straw.

“Bring a bit extra, if ‘e will, lad. Reeve Moklin could use some,” she responded.

“All right. I’ll have it here by Vespers.” Hart replied as he pulled the door shut.

Evening found the scrivener trudging from the byre looking like nothing more than a walking haystack. Free-Claw paced at his side.

*Friend need chase mice?*

“Very funny, Sir Pard! But methinks all self respecting creatures have long since deserted this particular straw pile.” Hart had to chuckle at the cat’s droll comment.

Pausing to offload a portion of his burden for Sal to refresh Moklin’s bed, he snagged his own bed sack from its drying spot and struggled to haul the bulky load up the ladder to his loft.

“At least I need not fear iron saltings in this bed tonight.” Hart commented to the pard who took up a spot as far as possible from where the scrivener scuffled to push the stubborn straw inside the bed sack.

The comment served to trigger Hart’s thoughts, opening a floodgate of recollection and speculation. His mind wandered back to what had, for him, signaled the beginning of so much grief, pain and confusion.

For me, it all began with the breaking. But was that truly the beginning of the Dark workings in Stamglen? I wonder.

*Dark work longtime* came the pard’s sober response.

I fear you are correct, my friend. But one thing is certain: since that time the evidences of such activity have grown apace. Think on it: mysterious poisonings, curious upheavals among the peasants, the attempt on my life by the Marshall’s men, even the wild storm so early in the season. Such things cannot easily be explained away.

*No try explain. Hunt!*

Indeed! The hunt will come; only, I know not just how or when. Another thing that troubles me deeply is what I see happening to Lord Stormund. He is not so old as to warrant the total decline in his powers. While we were waiting out the storm in the castle, I myself saw how agitated and confused he has become. One evening I came upon him in the great hall wandering from one end of that huge chamber to the other, lifting the edges of the great tapestries that hang there, peering behind them as though searching out some lurker.

*Him know something.* Free-Claw’s mental comment came, not as a question.

Perhaps, but I fear that if he does, it lies so deep within his tortured mind that even he could not say what it is. He has become so restless that none seem able soothe him save Bard Brydwen with her music, and that only for short periods.

*Maybe him worry about who be new Lord.*

That is possible, but I am not sure he is even was aware of the significance of Sir Dunken’s death, or indeed that the only male heir to Stamglen had passed.

*Not good.*

No, it is a very bad sign. And think on the other strange happenings. Even that ice storm had a Dark feel about it. What about the mysterious beast that attacked Arin’s party? And Belicaus is certain that foul magic was employed to hasten Dunken’s end.

The longer Hart pondered the situation, the more fear clutched at his vitals. How might one man have such far reaching evil influence? There was no question in the scrivener’s mind as to who was behind all of the unexplained events. But what could possibly be empowering Lazarous in such magnitude?

Free-Claw, I think it is time to dig into the Marshall’s past. This much I know: he is not who he claims to be. That much I uncovered in Owlglass’s library.

*How search?*

I believe this calls for a council of the Pact. Will you pass on the summons to Softstep that we need to make a link?

*Free-Claw call.*

Some days passed before an answer was relayed through the pard. In the meanwhile Hart resumed his careful sweeping of the loft in the chance that another attempt might be made to render him Powerless. To his relief, no evidence was forthcoming.

One evening just past Whitsuntide, the scrivener sat at his writing bench going over some accounts for Moklin, but found it increasingly difficult to keep his mind on his work. It was not that some outside influence had altered his ability, but the inner workings of his own mind pulled his attention elsewhere.

Word had come earlier that day of a mysterious illness seemed to be sweeping through the ranks of Castle Stamglen retainers, especially those in positions of responsibility. Fear nibbled at Hart. What if Brydwen fell to the strange malady? Could Belicaus reach her in time? The report indicated that several had sickened and died with alarming speed.

If the sickness was of Evil origin, there was no doubt that Brydwen would be a likely target, if for no other cause than to bring distress upon Lord Stormund who had so come to depend upon her skills. What was more, the friendship between her uncle Belicaus and Hart was no secret in the castle. That alone could well condemn her.

A cold sweat broke upon the scrivener’s brow. He must find some way to protect the lovely Bard, even to begging her to leave the castle. But even as the thought passed through his mind, Hart knew that to be a futile hope. His influence upon the strong minded young woman was far from powerful.

Word finally came that Owlglass and Soorta were ready to join in a meeting of the members of the Pact. Set for the same spot they had used when Hart was introduced to the company, the scrivener took care not to be seen leaving the vill with the others, save for his cat companion.

The early dusk of winter was lowering when he arrived at the ancient oak. There waiting stood Ibed, Hesta and Brother Belicaus. The monk had lit a smokeless fire, shielded by a ring of moss covered stones. Its glow was safely screened by a heavy thicket that served to encircle the venerable tree. Even Hart would not have been able to penetrate the circle without the guidance of Free-Claw, despite having visited it earlier.

Those gathered had just enough time for brief greetings before hermit and crone arrived, shadowed by the immense wolf. “Well met, friends!” Owlglass called out heartily. “It has been too long.”

“Long enough for much mischief to be wrought, I fear.” Hart announced, proceeding to outline his fears to the gathering.

“Yes, lad. Much as I hate to agree, you have the straight of it. Most like the picture is far darker than you know.” Soorta leaned heavily on Owlglass’s arm. The tiny woman seemed, if possible, more shrunken that ever.

“Then we are agreed. Lazarous is at the bottom of the Dark doings in Stamglen?” Belicaus queried.

“No doubt. But knowing this does naught but give us a starting place. The true question is ‘HOW does he manage his evil?’” Ibed’s words bore an edge that penetrated to the very core of each listener.

“All of you know about the discoveries I have made. Do you not?” Hart looked from face to face.

“Aye. We have been kept abreast of happenings here, especially your investigations.” Owlglass responded for the group.

“Then it is time to push deeper.” Soorta took the lead. “Let us join the link. Hesta, have you brought the herbs?”

“Aye, M’ Lady.” The herb woman held out a small leathern bag.

“Then cast them upon the fire. All of you—LINK!”

The resultant burst of greenish fire gave way to a fine mist that encircled the group, blocking out the world beyond them so completely that each felt as if he or she had entered a totally foreign realm—one not entirely of the present.

The stooped Crone of Kolroven chanted what sounded to Hart like an ancient lay he had heard in childhood, but he could not quite make out the words. Slowly there rose between them, as it were a miniature of Castle Stamglen, accurate in every detail, so that the watchers soon realized that they were “Seeing” the ancient pile itself from a vast distance.

Larger and larger the “Seeming” grew, until the members of the Pact felt as though they had truly entered the environs of Lord Stormund’s demesne. Corridors opened before them and passed soundlessly.

At length a broad stair yawned before them and descending this they saw ahead the entry to the burial vault of the Lords of Stamglen, long dead. From within the circle of watchers a glistening green globe seemed to float upward and make its way unerringly toward a freshly hewn slab that lay upon a tomb.

An intense reaction within Hart’s Gifted Eye nearly caused him to break the link with his companions. The globe settled upon, no—it sunk through and into the grave place.

With a sudden jolt that left the Pact members literally reeling in their places, the scene disappeared and they were once more simply staring into the glowing coals of Belicaus’s fire.

“So—we have all ‘Seen’.” Soorta declared. “An answer of sorts lies in the Stamglen burial place.”

“I—I suppose it falls to me to pay it a visit.” Hart’s voice faltered as his spirit quailed at the import of what they had observed.

“You will not go alone.” Belicaus spoke quietly.

“Yes, there needs to be a reason for your being there, in case someone finds you.” Hesta put in.

“They go to pray at the grave of the recently departed. None can gainsay that.” Ibed knew the custom of this land, though he called another his home.

“Very well. Let us go forth and obey the guidance we have received.” The monk took his long staff, bowed to the Lady Soorta and disappeared into the forest.

“We meet tomorrow after Lauds at the ale house.” Hart called as the tall brother strode off.

“Take great care, youngling.” Owlglass looked closely into the scrivener’s tense face. “You front massive Evil; a misstep could mean the loss of everything.”

“I—I know, Master. If it were not for each of you, I would have been lost long since.” Hart felt the sting of tears and ducked his head to hide the sign he perceived as weakness.

“Do not fear. You are a sworn servant of the Light, lad. No false accusing can alter that. Your allegiance to righteousness will be your surest weapon, your strongest armor.” Soorta handed Hart a box of his beard remover, bringing him back to the mundane and leaving him the more grateful for that.

“Until we meet again,” Ibed called, “peace be to each of you!”

****

Anxious to discover what lay in the burial chamber at Castle Stamglen, Hart rolled out of his warm bed to the displeasure of Free-Claw, who would have liked to slumber at least until the light of day.

“Come on, sleep lover, we have a task to complete and the fewer who happen to be up and about, the better.” Hart encouraged the drowsy cat while pulling on hose and tunic and donning his Eye patch, Cap of Knowledge and hooded cloak.

*No have to like.* The pard grumbled.

“Well, I don’t much like poking about among the departed, either,” was the scrivener’s rejoinder.

They found the monk sipping warmed cider and munching on a plug of dark bread. “Best take time to break your fast, Hart. We may need every scrap of strength we can garner for this day’s work.”

Nodding his agreement, Hart helped himself to the food and drink that had been placed on the low table in front of Brother Belicaus. “What think you of our chances?” He asked.

“As fair as may be. Every step we take from now on is fraught with risk. You know that.” The monk drained his cider pot and wiped his mouth with a capacious sleeve.

*Time go!* At last fully awake, the pard was anxious to get on with it.

Now familiar visitors to the castle, the trio had no difficulty gaining access as they entered the barbican and crossed the drawbridge. The hour being yet early, they had to call thrice before a sleepy guard responded and opened the portcullis for them.

“Humph, the castle could be stormed and taken before that lout was half awake,” mumbled Belicaus, recalling his days spent in warfare and defense ere taking the cloth.

“Methinks it is all a part of the general decline of Lord Stormund’s demesne,” Hart remarked as they passed across the quadrangle toward the entry that led to the memorial vaults. No one accosted them as they passed a number of guard posts, in fact they saw not the remotest sign of watchfulness anywhere.

Their steps echoed hollowly in the long descent, but at least someone had taken care to trim the rush lights that lined the way to the last resting place of countless generations of the Stamglen rulers. As they drew closer to the long vault, Hart’s hairs prickled slightly beneath his Cap – a sure indication of more than mundane happenings thereabout.

Taking a rush light from its holder, Belicaus led the way through the high arch that opened onto the burial chamber. Having been present at the entombment of Dunken, he passed quickly to the hapless knight’s new grave.

By now all of Hart’s Gifts had begun to manifest, so intensely that he almost reeled at the Power, which seemed to coil within him as though readying for a strike.

“What is it?” Belicaus had come to stand at the foot of Dunken’s tomb.

“I—I am not sure.” Hart reached out to steady himself against the smooth surface to the stone capping the free standing vault. As he did, there came an audible “snap” and beneath his trembling fingers a soft green glow began to emanate from the stone.

It was as if the process, begun by the linked Pact, simply continued, offering a guide to Hart’s questing hand. The tiny globe of emerald light rose and spread, enclosing his hand in a glistening glove, then began to move. Had he wished to resist, the scrivener could not have withstood the tugging. Crab-wise his fingers inched across the lines and whorls that formed an ornate decoration of the stone.

As his green clad hand reached an almost undetectable notch in the massive top of Dunken’s resting place, Hart’s fingers were suddenly thrust downward. Gritting his teeth in anticipation of the pain he would suffer when they smashed into unyielding rock, the scrivener was almost thrown off balance as his hand slipped neatly into the seemingly solid surface.

In an instant a portion of the cap stone lifted slightly and rotated to the left, revealing a declivity large enough to hold—a shield!

“That’s it!” Belicaus’s voice was edged with excitement.

Unable to contain his curiosity, the demi-pard leaped to the lid and peered over Hart’s shoulder. *What be?*

“What it is, I think, is the evidence we need to know that there is a definite plot to place Stamglen under the Power of the Dark!” Hart replied, his voice near shaking with the import of what lay before them.

“Does it mean what I think it means?” Belicaus face mirrored the distaste with which he formed the question.

“It means that someone, and we know who that ‘someone’ is, has long and long planned to seize the Lordship of Stamglen and is well on his way toward doing just that!” Hart responded.

*Explain!* Free-Claw lashed his tail in frustration.

“What lies hidden here is a shield, bearing the arms of the next Lord Stormund, and it reads like a map to the evil intent of Marshall Lazarous.”

*How?*

“See the quarterings? One depicts the house of Gamlin, but notice; it is differenced to indicate, not the male line as would Sir Dunken’s, but the female line—the arms are blazoned upon an oval. The next quarter is that of Sir Norvill’s device, of the House of Moorced. Another shows Norvill’s assumption of the heirship of Gamlin, which we know is the cadet line through which Stamglen’s inheritance now passes. You see, no female may inherit the rule of a manor, but she may pass the right on to her spouse only, under the laws of the land.”

“And the final quarter?” Belicaus prompted.

“That is the most damning of all. The last quarter depicts the bearer’s right to rule and shows the Stamglen boar combined with Norvill’s arms.”

“Most disturbing is the fact that this shield is not new formed, but in its intricacy must have been fashioned long before Sir Dunken died!” The monk’s voice had dropped almost to a whisper.

“Of this I am certain,” Hart put in. “It is clearly the work of a gifted smith named Kellon Armorer, who died from the poisoned well! See, here on the back is his mark.”

*Battle come soon.* The pard’s mind voice echoed the thoughts of both men as Hart carefully replaced the shield and closed its compartment.

 

 

 

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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.