Rusted Armor

By Andre Norton and Caroline Fike

Chapter Twenty-Seven

With agonizing slowness Hart seemed to be struggling upward through a torrent of black viscous liquid. Each time he neared the beckoning light above him, an unseen force would drag him deeper until he sagged, limp and choking into the morass.

“Hart! Hart! Come out of it!” A voice penetrated his consciousness at last and the scrivener opened his eyes to see that he was no longer in the clutches of the Dark but lying in Hesta’s hut, his left hand swathed in an immense bandage.

“H—how?” The one word question sounded as though it had come from a throat barely human.

“Ibed found you in the bowels of Castle Stamglen, writhing and screeching like a madman.” The face of the Herb Woman showed deep concern. Beside her crouched Belicaus who was absently stroking the sleek black head of the pard.

“It was a near thing, lad. What happened in that chamber?” The monk asked.

“I—” Hart coughed, swallowed and tried once more to form words. “I discovered what must be a portal to some further hiding place beneath the castle. But, when I would have entered that foul blackness, there came such a blow—”

For a long moment the scrivener seemed to withdraw into himself as if trying to recall the scene that had cost him so dearly. Hesta dipped a cloth into a bowl beside his pallet and laid it across his brow. Hart lifted his left arm to peer at the bandage and cried out in pain.

“Yes, that hurts most evilly, I fear. But the very pain is a good sign. When Ibed brought you here the hand had already begun to blacken with the poison. It was necessary to cut deeply and then burn away the proud flesh, else you might soon have become a one armed man.”

“S—something crawled across it in the darkness, stung like a thousand nettles!” Hart shuddered at the memory.

“Enough! It is best for you to rest now. That blow which felled you doubtless came from some ward previously set to keep out any who might offer threat to the Dark workings there.”

“Aye, Brother. Wise words. This ‘un came much too close to leavin’ us for good and all, but now is not the time for talk. Sleep’s what ‘e needs.” Hesta shooed monk and pard before her as she withdrew from the sick chamber.

Waiting for them outside the hut stood the chapman, concern etching his dark features. “Is it well with our young friend?”

“Twill be in time. I’ve done all I can for him. Now what he needs most is quiet. The effects of such an assault as was launched at him this day might well have laid low the mightiest mage.” The Herb Woman shook her head at the thought of Hart’s narrow escape.

“He was near gone when I reached him. It took every bit of the skill I have gained these many years to draw him from the pool of Darkness that had surrounded him.” Ibed visibly paled at the memory. “If it were not for your meeting me, Brother Belicaus, as I carried the lad through the storage vault, he would surely have been lost to us.”

“This is far more serious than any of us could have imagined,” the tall monk put in. “We must be certain never to enter that part of the castle, save by twos.”

“Aye, you have the right of it.” The merchant responded. “When Hart has recovered, he will be chafing to return and I shall insist upon joining him! I saw something in that chamber that both frightened and encouraged me, something that needs further examination.”

For several days Hart hovered in that grey realm between occasional delirium and fitful sleep. He was vaguely aware, at times, of a soft warm body pressed close beside him, but not until a full week had passed, did he hear the welcome greeting in his mind.

*Manfriend back?*

“Aye, Free-Claw, thanks to you and my friends, I am back.” With an effort the scrivener levered himself to a sitting position, wincing when he put pressure on his damaged left hand.

“I trust your ‘manfriend’ is sommat wiser for his troubles.” Hesta remarked from across the small room.

“I know that what lies beneath Stamglen is beyond my small abilities to confront!” Hart could not keep the rueful tone from his words.

*Then you be much wise.* The pard arched his back and rubbed against the scrivener’s side, being careful to avoid his injury.

“Free-Claw has some news, Hart.” Hesta interjected, desiring to move from the somber subject.

“Oh?” Hart looked more closely at his companion.

*New family. Much proud!* The demi-pard puffed himself noticeably as he paced across the room to a basket in the corner opposite Hart’s pallet. The scrivener had not noticed it before.

From inside the large container came a trilling in response to the cat’s throaty purr. With all the care of a proud father, Free-Claw gently lifted a small furry bundle in his jaws, carrying it and placing it in Hart’s lap.

Mewing softly, the tiny kitten snuggled closer to him, to be joined in rapid succession by two more.

“Oh, Free-Claw! They’re beautiful. One is just like you and the other two—”

*Be like mother. They female.* The black pard lowered his head and began licking his offspring. In a moment another small form crept across to join the scrivener on his pallet.

*This Lipeta, mate.*

“Hello, Lipeta. Your children are truly lovely.” Hart extended his right hand, palm upward, toward the timid tree cat who nosed it and then extended a small pink tongue to briefly rasp his fingers.

“She approves of you, though I can’t imagine why.” Another voice joined the conversation. Brydwen had quietly entered as all were admiring the new kittens. “Lipeta does not take easily to ‘two-legs’, you know.”

“I am honored!” Hart replied. “And thank you for taking your valuable time to visit me,” he added somewhat lamely.

“Oh, I came to see the new family,” Brydwen quickly responded, “but I am glad that you are better.” The girl seemed to realize that her first words had sounded a bit callous and tried to make amends.

Hart simply laughed, knowing the Bard for her vaunted independence. He suspected that she was at least mildly interested in his welfare, but far be it from her to reveal this fact to him!

After the passage of two more days under the watchful nursing of Hesta, Hart could stand the confinement no longer. The Herb Woman protested in vain as he rose and awkwardly wrapped his hooded cloak about himself, pulling it well down to hide the telltale Eye, for he had lost his patch in the castle.

“Have a care, lad!” Concern was writ large on the weathered features.

“I will, Hesta. It’s just that I need some exercise. My back feels as if it has turned to stone and my wits are not far behind it.” Hart’s tone spiraled upward into a near whine.

“Oh, all right! Get you gone and take the pard with you. At least he will use some wisdom.”

Hart paused to plant a quick kiss on the surprised woman’s cheek, then laughing for the first time in days, he picked up a clay pot and scooped something into it before striding out into the sunshine, grateful to be alive.

“And don’t go near the—you know where!” Hesta called after him.

“I won’t,” the scrivener responded, but his feet seemed to turn quite on their own toward the towering walls of Castle Stamglen.

*No go in!* Free-Claw’s thought bore the weight of a command.

“I’m not. It’s—it’s just that I have had this strange drawing since yester night—” Hart’s words trailed off as he sought a path long remembered from his boyhood days.

There—just past a clump of hawthorns a narrow track twisted down the embankment that served as foundation for the great curtain wall of the stronghold. Hart paused to pick up a short length of wood to steady himself, then began to work his way cautiously along the path.

*Where go?* The pard’s question carried a touch of peevishness.

“I remembered that, when I was a boy hereabouts, I used to play in a sort of cave beneath the castle wall. It was not very big, but it looked to have been worked by crude tools. I wonder if it might prove to be another way into the deeper levels, one that does not carry a warding.” As he spoke, Hart thrust the stick he carried into the tangle of brambles that had spread to every available patch of soil along the rocky bank.

“Ah, there it is!” The scrivener’s right hand, stick and all, disappeared in a cluster of brush. Retrieving it quickly, he managed to lever a small opening and poke his head through to confirm his suspicion.

“It is as I remembered. Come, Free-Claw, there’s just enough room to squeeze through.” Ignoring the twinges coming from his injured hand, Hart crouched low and wiggled into the space he had made.

Hissing in complaint, the pard followed, not at all sure of the wisdom of this venture. When both had passed through the briary barrier, they found themselves facing a low chamber filled with the detritus of years of small creatures sheltering there.

Having thought to bring a few coals from Hesta’s fire pit, Hart scraped together some twigs and leaves and turned out the contents of the clay pot to light a small fire. The cave had a chill, damp feel about it and was dark enough to need the welcome addition of the flames.

“The place, I think most likely to hide an entry into the castle, lies just beneath that boulder.” Hart felt a surge of excitement, not unlike what he had experienced as a boy exploring a mysterious cave.

Using his length of wood for a lever, the scrivener grunted as he labored to move the large rock. At first it stood firm, but then slowly it gave way revealing the hint of another opening. But before he could secure the stone against settling back into its niche, Hart was rocked back on his haunches, clutching his head and moaning.

*Manfriend! What wrong?* The cat scrambled to his side and brought his nose level with the man’s face.

“The—the, oh, I cannot bear it!” With a shudder Hart crumpled into the litter lining the floor of the cave.

For a few moments the scrivener lay half conscious and near to retching as wave upon wave of despair assaulted his tortured mind. At length the rasp of the pard’s tongue seemed to break the grip of whatever had attacked him and he sat up.

“Free-Claw, never have I known such grief and torment, not even when I was falsely accused and banished, nor when I passed through the dire tests required for me to come into the full use of my Gifts!” Absently wiping his forehead with his bandaged left hand, Hart leaned back against the boulder which had settled back into place hiding the opening once more.

*Free-Claw no feel.*

“I believe whatever that was, was aimed solely at me—a message—a plea. Someone is in torment of mind, body and soul in that foul pit below the castle! I believe it to be the Lady Arin. Perhaps she did sense me following her that night and is trying to reach me.”

*Maybe trap.* Ever practical, the demi-pard sought to warn his friend.

“True. It may indeed be a trick of my enemy, knowing that I will not give up until I find the source of this working of Evil. I must find a way into that portal!”

*No safe. This time could die.*

“Somewhere there is a weapon I can use against this Dark Power. I—I must—find—it!” Hart’s voice rose to the scream of battle rage as he pounded his fists upon the rock beside him, oblivious to the pain that answered his fury.

Aware that he was in no shape to pursue his search farther, Hart reluctantly followed Free-Claw out of the cave like crevice and took care to see that the brambles showed no sign of having been disturbed.

It took considerably longer to climb back up the path than to climb down, for Hart’s strength had been full spent in the attempt to move the large rock. What was more, he realized, the wave of despair he had felt, had left him seriously drained.

As man and pard emerged from the path and gained the roadway that led to the vill, an anxious Ibed al Zahr met them. “Hart, lad! Where have you been? You look almost as bad as when I fetched you from that foul pit!”

“I know. I’m sorry, Ibed. Truly I only meant to prove or disprove a theory.” The scrivener paused and leaned heavily on his stick.

“From the looks of you, the theory almost proved your undoing,” was the curt reply.

“Aye, that I know now. Why is it so hard to admit to weakness? I thought I could handle a simple search.” Hart meekly submitted to the chapman’s supporting arm as they returned to Hesta’s hut.

“From what I have seen beneath this castle, no one person is equal to fronting what has taken hold there.” The somber words caused the scrivener to stop and stare up at the be-turbaned man.

“What saw you?”

“That can wait. I have asked for another council of the Pact, but since Owlglass and Soorta cannot join us, we must be content with the skills of the four of us.”

*Five!* The pard’s hackles lifted briefly at the omission.

“Sorry, my four legged friend. Five! Indeed we will depend upon you to inform our absent members of the results or our meeting.” The chapman urged Hart to continue his labored pace, offering what assistance he could.

It was not until after all had eaten a filling meal prepared by the Herb Woman and were settled about her small fire pit, sipping on hot cider, that Ibed spoke of what was uppermost in all their minds. “The time has come for the telling of tales and uncovering of mysteries.”

“Tales?” Belicaus responded.

“Aye, there is one among us who has withheld facts that bear upon the situation facing Stamglen.” The chapman looked pointedly at Hart.

The scrivener bowed his head in acknowledgement. “Yes, and you all know that it is I who have not told all concerning my connection with the castle, its lord and his marshal.”

“Say on.” The tall monk put in quietly.

“Owlglass and Soorta know most of my story, having sheltered me just after it happened—” Hart swallowed, more to clear his mind than his throat.

“Hart is not my birth name; that was Huon—Huon of Rennay. I lost my parents at a very early age, due to a strange sickness, one never seen on their manor, as far as anyone knew. My father was a knight banneret, enfoefed to Lord Stormund and somehow kin, though quite distantly so.

“There was no question but that I should be sent to Stamglen to be fostered here and eventually become a knight in the lord’s service. I was but eight years of age when the local priest brought me, along with the document that granted my father’s lands to the Stamglen Manor. For, without a man grown to look after the Manor of Rennay, it would have soon been overrun by brigands and looted of its small wealth.

“All of this Father Corman told me when I came of age. By then I had become such a part of life here that it little mattered to me what became of a place I could no longer remember and a people who would care little if they served Rennay or Stormund.

“I excelled in the knightly training given me, as well as other skills that are rarely acquired by squires. For some reason Father Corman took it upon himself to lesson me in reading, letters and numbers, though I did notice that no other squires were so tutored, only a couple of princelings who were also fostered here for a while.

“The time came at last for me to receive my spurs, a moment of great pride and some pain. After preparing myself in the vigil, bathing and donning the white garments signifying my readiness to take my place among the ranks of the pure knights of Stamglen, I stood before Lord Stormund.

“Strangely, as if someone had spoken in my ear, words came into my mind: ‘Beware, son of Rennay, lest you follow your father.’ I stammered over the oath of fealty, so shocked I was at this strange thought.

“Indeed, I pondered over the meaning of that warning later when the older knights were celebrating the elevation of the new members to their exalted fellowship. However, I came to think it simply the nervous reaction to the hours spent fasting and keeping vigil.

“Soon the business of serving as a new knight swept away all other consideration and I settled into my new life with a measure of contentment. But it was not to last.

“Scarcely half a year after my knighting, was I awakened from a sound sleep where I bedded with the other knights in the Great Hall of Stamglen. Two armsmen seized me and jerking me to my feet, marched me ahead of them into the quadrangle. When I angrily questioned them, my only answer was a sudden cuff to the jaw that brought my teeth down hard on my tongue.

“The taste of blood in my mouth and a growing dread in my heart accompanied me as I was brought to stand in the midst of a crowd of knights, armsmen and some villeins. In a matter of no time at all, I was accused by none other than the Lady Arin, whom I had thought to be my friend, of the most foul of crimes.

“No, she did not say in words that I had violated her, but when Lord Stormund’s Champion asked if I was the man, she nodded, fear etched on her face. How could I answer? To shout my denial would have served not at all, so I kept my peace and submitted to the most degrading experience I shall ever undergo.” At that Hart bowed his head, shaken by the memory that surged through him.

“We all know what the ‘breaking’ is like.” Belicaus spoke softly. “You were disgraced, stripped of your knightly equipage and banished.”

“Aye. I was driven into the wild lands where I met the hermit Owlglass. Had he not understood my plight and taken pity upon me, I know not where I would be today. Somehow, he knew the moment he saw the wretched condition of my garments and heard that I was out of Stamglen, that I had fallen afoul of Sir Lazarous.”

“It would seem that our Marshall has a well deserved reputation for getting rid of those whom he either perceives as a threat, or cannot manipulate.” Hesta near spit out the words.

“The question is: why did he think you a danger to him?” Ibed scratched his beard with an expression on his face that none could read.

“Perhaps he feared Hart would supplant him in Lord Stormund’s service. Men of power often guard their rank with great jealousy.” Belicaus put in.

“I was but a very junior knight. How could I be a threat to the mighty Champion? I had never even won in a tournament. I was ever one of the first to be tumbled from his mount in the lists.”

“Mayhap he recognized your budding ‘Gift’?” Ibed raised his eyebrows.

“How? I knew nothing of any Gift, let alone had given any evidence of special Powers.” Hart wondered aloud.

“But if he sensed something in you, say the ability to shield your mind from probing—?” Hesta’s voice betrayed her excitement.

“Yes! That might well have been part of it. But, I think Lazarous would not have been content with so slender a cord. To falsely accuse a knight is an unforgivable crime, one not entered upon lightly.” This was the monk’s comment.

“What if he discovered something else, something that ran counter to his own plotting—? We know full well that this man has been laying down a plan; the hidden shield is ample proof of that.” Hart had now begun to enter into the speculation with a will.

“Then it is our task to determine what it was that triggered his attack. I think when we do, the knowledge will bring with it other pieces of the puzzle, like iron to a lodestone!” Ibed al Zahr spoke with a growing force behind his words, smacking his hands together for emphasis.

 

 

 

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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.