Rusted Armor

By Andre Norton and Caroline Fike

Chapter Twenty-Six

Scarcely had the last of the winter storms abated when the villeins of Under Stamglen were called to Lord Stormund’s fields for Plough Monday. The newly thawed soil had dried barely enough for workers to lay down the straight furrows in narrow strips needed for the spring planting.

The Steward of Stamglen rarely had trouble gathering the peasants for the Boon Work, with its ample ale and cider provided for all, as well as a hearty meal on the first day of plowing. The tradition had wisely been established to allow surfs the means to keep up their energy for the demanding work. Strangely, however, this day’s tale of villeins was noticeably lacking, prompting Moklin to summon Hart.

“Scrivener, go through the vill and see if you can locate any lay-abouts. We seem to be seriously short of plow hands this day.”

“Aye, Bailiff, straight away.” Hart responded and, chirping to the pard, set off toward the likeliest place to find the missing men. Bending to pass under the low lintel of a disreputable hut, which displayed a ragged ale sheaf, Hart was not surprised to hear loud laughter from within.

“Aargh, we ducked ‘im, we did!” A pock faced villein swaggered about the smoky room waving an ale pot and splashing its contents over his audience.

“Right, Bottoms! ‘e showed ‘em.” Half a dozen men sprawled on benches, clearly so far gone in their cups as to be quite unaware of Hart’s entering. The scrivener stood quietly for several moments, listening to the increasingly rowdy talk.

*Men fight soon.* Free-Claw’s mental observation was, as usual, right on target.

“Aye, my four-footed friend, this has a bad feel about it.” Hart responded in like speech only the pard could perceive.

Before the thought was fully formed, a curse was accompanied by a crash as a drunken villein stumbled headlong across the table where several others sat. In the time it took to draw breath, the entire population of the tap room happily joined in all-out battle.

“Free-Claw, quick, fetch the monk. Tell him to bring the Bailiff and a hand of armsmen. This is more than we can handle alone!” Hart reached for a bucket of water that stood by the door and aimed it at the nearest cluster of men.

The scrivener soon found himself the sole object of the drunken brawlers. Spinning out of reach of a cudgel swinging giant, he ducked behind an oaken column supporting a low arched beam, which ran lengthwise down the room. Hitting the wood with such force, the man yowled in pain and dropped his weapon.

Near despairing for his own safety, Hart felt a wash of relief as Moklin and his men burst in, followed by Brother Belicaus, poised to swing his huge staff at the nearest head.

Bailiff and assistants made short work of pacifying the truants, herding them off to a lockup where they could sit, sleep off their ale and ponder the error of their ways until fit to answer to the officer of the manor for their offenses.

“Strange,” Belicaus commented as he and Hart walked back toward the edge of the vill where the more lawfully minded were pursuing their appointed tasks, “it is not the custom for villeins to forsake a Boon Work day to spend their own hard won coins on bad ale.”

“Think you as I do?” Hart asked.

“That this smacks of more meddling of a certain plotter, bent on mischief?” Belicaus responded.

“Just so. It’s as if there were an ill humor laid upon the people, the land, the beasts and—even the weather!” Hart’s voice grew more tense as realization of the seriousness of the threat grew upon him.

“I fear it is much worse than a simple humor.” The tall monk looked perplexed.

“Brother Belicaus, I know you and the others have counseled me not to venture into the depths of Castle Stamglen alone, but I must try and learn what I can.” Hart looked earnestly into dark eyes that reflected the monk’s concern.

“Perhaps. But you must maintain a link through the pard. I will seek out Ibed Al Zahr and warn him to be on the alert.” Belicaus tentatively agreed.

“Of course. I have no desire to walk into a trap!” Hart spoke with some heat.

“All right. Wait until just after Compline. We must know the precise time when you enter the castle.” The brother rose from a bench in the now empty tap room and laid a work-coarsened hand on Hart’s shoulder for a moment before departing.

The Abbey bells of Saint Stam had scarcely ceased vibrating when Hart, accompanied by the sleek dark form of the pard, slipped quietly along the corridor leading from the still room toward the entrance to the storage vaults below.

The scrivener’s mental question brought quick response from Free-Claw.

*Link is up.*

“Good. Now to seek the sign I showed you from the old chart.” Hart envisioned the tiny green eye his wand had revealed.

*Free-Claw look.*

But before the two searchers could reach the end of the vault, a soft sound froze both in their tracks. Someone was descending the long stair behind them. With barely enough time to duck behind a large ale butt, Hart could feel cold sweat beading his forehead.

One by one, the rush lights illuminating the dank chamber seemed to shrink in upon themselves and sputter out, leaving a thickening darkness. Slowly, with a soft susurration that Hart could not quite identify, came a figure surrounded by a dull yellowish glow, like the light given off by some unspeakable bog denizen.

As the apparition drew closer to their hiding place, the scrivener became aware of an almost inaudible humming, so soft that it seemed to come from inside his own head. But the closer the light progressed, the more pervasive grew the sound. Even the pard at his side was responding to it with a low throated growl.

When the figure reached the cross aisle in which man and cat had taken refuge, it stopped and turned slowly to face in their direction, bringing a moan from Hart as he finally saw clearly.

“Preserve us!” were the only words his mind could form as a powerful impulse to break and run surged through him.

Free-Claw spat softly as if to echo his thought. Fronting them was the form of the Lady Arin, but Hart knew somehow that this was not the lovely, lively maiden he had met so many months before in the hidden garden. Here stood a husk, face drawn and pasty as any corpse might possess, eyes—nothing but ghastly pale orbs, shot through with streaks of the yellow miasma that swirled like a nest of writhing serpents. Hands raised, as though feeling her way sightless toward an unspeakable doom, the shell that had once housed a vibrant girl, turned and shuffled toward the far wall.

For long moments Hart crouched, frozen by what he had seen, unsure whether that had been a true representation or perhaps a vision of what awaited the hapless Arin. He swallowed bile that rose to his throat at the revelation and, forcing his reluctant feet to trace the steps of the maiden, followed on.

The humming had stopped while the girl paused, but now resumed, continuing to intensify, knifing into the scrivener’s head with a gut-wrenching disorientation. He reeled like one of the drunks he had encountered earlier in the day, barely noticing the pard beside him was finding it equally difficult to walk a straight line.

Tearing off the Eye patch, Hart squinted to keep the faint yellow glow in sight. He dare not lose contact as he had done once before and drew as close as he dared, but need not have worried, for the young woman seemed totally unaware of her surroundings. Stopping before the rough hewn wall, the obscene glow around her spread in an ovoid that appeared to merge with the very stone itself.

Where there had been a solid expanse of rock, now yawned a narrow opening through which Arin passed oblivious to the ugly scratches left on her pale arms by the jagged stones framing the entry.

Anxious to pass through behind her, ere the way closed once more, Hart bent low and almost stumbling, followed his quarry. The passage immediately began to waver around him as an ominous grinding sounded almost on his backside. Suddenly something hit him from behind thrusting him downward and into absolute darkness.

How long he lay curled in upon himself, Hart could not tell. He knew only that all sense had been taken from him—until—

*MAN FRIEND! MAN FRIEND!* Free-Claw’s mind call rang like a thunder clap through Hart’s returning consciousness.

“Don’t shout. I hear you.” The scrivener responded.

*Keep talk. I find.* Came the urgent request.

“I’m here. Where—where are you?”

In answer, though still unable to see, Hart felt the rasp of the pard’s tongue on his cheek. “Wh—where are WE?”

*Trap in wall, Free-Claw think.*

“Tr—trapped? How—oh, no!” Panic nibbled at Hart as he struggled to rise, thrusting out his hands in much the posture he had seen from Arin just moments before. His fear was hardly lessened when, in less than two pace widths in any direction, he encountered unyielding stone.

Battling to regain a measure of calm, the scrivener dropped once more to the cold floor of the now sealed passage. “I—I’m sorry, my friend. I seem to have got us into a fine mess with my haste.”

*Not dead.* The pard’s gift for simple statement of fact went far toward bringing Hart back to sanity.

“No, you’re right. We still have life, though no light or freedom. Say—can you sense the Link?” Hope grew like the tingle of feeling returning to a numbed hand.

*Give touch.* The pard drew closer so Hart could rest his hand on the sleek fur. For what seemed a very long time, the cat remained silent, questing for the thread that might well mean survival for them both.

“Well?” Hart could not tell if the call had gotten through—he couldn’t even sense the mind voice of his friend.

*Must make sharp point call.*

“Oh, you mean you must narrow the call to make it stronger?” It did make sense.

*Yes. Ibed answer.* Free-Claw’s words carried a strong impression of self satisfaction.

“Well done! What said he?”

*Him come. Make way.*

The intense relief at the pard’s response began to fade as hour after hour dragged by with still no sign of the chapman.

“Are—are you sure he is coming?” Hart cared little for the whining tone of his own voice. “Did he say how long?”

*No say.* The cat could be forgiven a touch of exasperation. He was beginning to feel the strain too.

“Well, I, for one, can sit no longer.” The scrivener stood again and felt in his belt for the Dhroghii stone wand. Perhaps there was some way—

Holding the slender rod before him, he turned slowly to make a sweep of the imprisoning stone pocket. At first the wand gave no hint of life, but when Hart directed it toward the floor just beyond the spot of entry, a faint green glow began to emanate from the nested tip. Thinking to enhance the focus by touching it to his forehead, he near staggered as a brilliant emerald flash blinded both man and cat for a moment.

“Did you see?”

*Hole.* The pard inched cautiously forward as the light steadied and became more bearable.

For a moment Hart gulped at the thought of finding the opening the hard way. It required no great imagining to see himself lying broken somewhere far below the level they now occupied. But—shaking off the dark thought, Hart thrust the wand into the fissure.

“It seems to have carven steps, though I like not the look of them.” Indeed the stone notches descending the near vertical wall were slimy with the dampness that pervaded the space. Noticing a dark smudge on the top step he bent closer to examine it. “Look, Free-Claw. This is the way she went.”

*Foot mark.* The pard sniffed the small print. *We go?*

“Yes. If Ibed comes, he can follow us. I must know where Arin is bound.” Hart twisted around and lowered himself into the opening backward. The notches were so steeply cut that he must descend ladderwise.

“Wait here for Ibed, Free-Claw. I cannot carry you and it is far too steep for your paws.” Tucking the wand into his belt, the scrivener cautiously began to lower himself by touch alone.

*No like!* The pard growled as his companion disappeared.

Before long Hart’s hands felt as though he had plunged them into a fetid midden, nor did they smell much better. Moments dragged and still his questing foot found no landing, simply one after another of the worn notches. He nearly lost his purchase on the stone when something slithered across his left hand leaving it tingling slightly. Dared he stop and withdraw the wand to examine it? No—there was no time. He must not allow his quarry to outdistance him more than she had already.

When he had near despaired of reaching level ground, Hart suddenly felt his reaching foot strike something—soft! Snatching it back up to the notch just vacated, the scrivener paused, heart thundering in his ears. What was that!

Knowing he must have light, he gripped a rock outcrop with his right hand and slowly edged the still stinging left under his right arm and just—about—reached— With immense relief he drew the wand and, unable to hold it to his head, simply concentrated upon calling forth light.

Not the flash seen above, but a steady green glow now spread about him as Hart turned his head as far as he dared to sight what lay below. At the base of the wall to which he clung grew, if such a word could be used for that beneath him, a mass of fungus. Where his foot had touched there spread an oozing patch that reminded him of the look of a wound gone foul.

The scrivener had no desire to tread again on the repugnant growth, but it seemed to cover the surface as far as his wand light spread. The wand! Perhaps it would serve him here. Pointing the Dhroghii stone tip toward the mess, he flicked it awkwardly in a whipping motion. The answering flash struck the fungus and seemed to catch –fire would have been too nice a word. It sizzled and undulated, slowly turning dark as a choking stench rose.

Seized with a fit of coughing at the evil smell, Hart nearly lost his wand and his grip on the stone. Clinging desperately for several moments until he could breathe comfortably once more, he peered again at the effects of his working.

Where there had been spongy growth now spread a clear, though charred surface. The way opened none too soon for Hart, for his cramping hand and feet loosed their hold of their own accord, tumbling him to the floor below with a jolt.

*Manfriend safe?* Came the urgent mind call from above.

“Y—yes. I think so. You would not like it here, my friend. This is truly of the Dark.” Hart paused to get his bearings, lifting the wand for light.

He had come to a moderately large chamber with the appearance of having been hewn from the bedrock upon which Castle Stamglen stood. A faint path of sorts led into the darkness to his right. As the scrivener turned to follow that, an almost urgent sense of immediate danger surged through him.

With each step he took, the feeling intensified until his scalp beneath the Cap of Knowledge was prickling furiously. Someone—some—thing was in the darkness pacing him step for step! If only he had a decent light.

A sharp pain in the back of his left hand reminded him where the invisible creature had touched him. Indeed he could feel an angry welt across it swelling alarmingly. No time for this, Hart thought as he gritted his teeth against the pain.

Once more lifting the wand to rest it against his forehead above the Emerald Eye, he endeavored to see more clearly. As before, light burst from it piercing the darkness, but this time the intensity had diminished. Hart had no choice but to move ahead, straining to hear if truly he was being followed. The way through the chamber funneled at length into a low and twisting passage.

Bending to avoid banging his head against its ceiling, he put out his left hand to steady himself against the wall. Again the pain struck, this time surging up through his arm and shoulder with fiery intensity. Hart bit his tongue to avoid crying out. Whatever had left its mark upon him was not through with him yet, likely a servant of the Dark, which ruled here in the bowels of Stamglen.

He had gone some distance when the pain seemed to subside, but in its place came—numbness. Fear stirred in Hart’s gut, fear that whispered fell things in his mind.

You are dying—slowly; poison spreads and will soon leave you to feed the fungus!

No longer able to distinguish the steady mental touch of his friend-in-fur, Hart stopped again and focusing all his mental energy, called desperately, “Free-Claw, answer! Do you hear me?”

Nothing—it was as he suspected. Some power was blocking him, perhaps toying with him before—attack?

Hart blundered ahead in the dwindling hope that he might somehow find where Arin had gone. His strength near forsaken him, his wand light shrunken alarmingly, he peered cautiously around a sharp bend in the passage. Ahead, at a remove of perhaps a score of paces, the narrow confines of the space opened once more into an area the scrivener could not fathom, so immense it appeared.

Faint reflections flickered all about him as he eased a step or two into the chamber. As best he could determine, the walls and distant roof were wrought from some substance that fractured his wand light into myriad bits and flung it back at him, all save for one spot. Toward this Hart moved with an effort that far exceeded what the short walk should have cost him.

As he drew closer to the place he had noticed, it seemed that all light was instantly swallowed by a section of the wall. Not exactly an opening, it was unlike the surrounding crystalline surface, but appeared the embodiment of blackness, dull, roiling and curiously obscene to Hart’s Emerald Eye.

Stooping to pick up a chunk of rock from the littered chamber floor, the scrivener tossed it toward the dark splotch. Not surprisingly it passed into the coiling darkness and disappeared from sight. Dared he seek to follow?

Holding out the wand in his right hand, Hart drew closer to the portal, for this he now knew it to be. But the instant the tip came into contact with the black surface, he was struck with a mighty wave of Power, like none he had ever encountered. With it burst forth the humming sound he had heard before, this time grown to the level of a mind breaking scream.

Hart’s last thought as, deafened and helpless he tumbled backward, was: too far—I have come too far!

 

 

 

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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.