Rusted Armor

By Andre Norton and Caroline Fike

Chapter Twenty-Eight

The chapman raised his hand to silence the gabble of voices erupting in response to his speculation.

“There is yet another key to the mystery—one I discovered when responding to Free-Claw’s urgent call in behalf of the scrivener. As I descended into the crystalline chamber and approached the dark portal before which Hart lay, I saw, etched above that vile opening, symbols that chilled my very life blood.”

Once more everyone began speaking at once, but Free-Claw’s mind voice silenced them all.

*Marks of Ancients.*

“Yes, friend pard, you have the measure of it. But, how knew you this?” Ibed looked puzzled.

*Much long ago, when Free-Claw taken captive, saw same marks on bad men’s skin.*

“And you, linked with the Pact, saw them again through my eyes!” The chapman’s voice betrayed growing tension.

*Never forget!* The intensity of the pard’s thought near pained those gathered about him.

“I, too, have a memory of those particular symbols, etched deep into my being. They represent an unspeakable name that was invoked long ago while I crouched hidden, for fear of my life, in the fire pit of the Caliph’s palace.” At Ibed’s words, Hart drew in a sharp breath.

“The master of eunuchs!” The scrivener exclaimed.

“Aye. What I did not tell you when I recounted my story was what my mentor later revealed to me. The slavers, who provided youths as slaves for the Caliph’s hareem, worshiped a most vile and ancient being. It is said that their rites date back over a thousand years and involve the darkest of ceremonies.” The chapman spat on the ground as if even referring to such evil was distasteful to him.

“You spoke of the answering fire that rose when the master of eunuchs called upon the—name.” The import of a connection, between Stamglen and the long ago doings in Ab-Mendalym, near took Hart’s breath away.

“Indeed—it came of an eldritch Evil, one that would seem also to have roots beneath Lord Stormund’s castle. You see, the symbols upon that portal tell me that beyond it lies a temple, sacred to—one I will not name!” Once more Ibed al Zahr reacted to his own words in a gesture of warding against the Dark.

“C—can you tell us what sort of magic might be at work there?” It took no small amount of determination for the scrivener to pose the question.

“My knowledge is limited. Any curiosity about such was burned from me in the fire pit of Rugeem! However, I do know that the foulest rites are said to be practiced by the followers of—the Unspeakable—blood magic.” The chapman’s voice had dropped as though he was loath to mouth such words.

“May all that is holy preserve us!” The monk was heard to intone.

“Well you might pray,” Ibed replied. “We front an adversary of immense Power whose resources grow with every hour he remains unchallenged.”

“B—but how can we hope to challenge him?” Hesta asked in a voice that trembled slightly.

“We must bind ourselves to the Light and to each other!” Belicaus near shouted, causing the others to start.

“I believe I may be of service in this.” Ibed responded.

“How?” asked the others in chorus.

“There is a solemn ritual, almost as ancient of the Evil we must front, one which will unite us in so close a bond that each may readily call forth the Gifts of any other so bound.” The turbaned merchant allowed his gaze to pass from one face to another in turn, waiting for the import of his words to dawn fully upon them.

“S—so, if needed, I might—” Hart could not bring himself to speak further.

“Might exercise the Gift of Belicaus’ healing, my travel by means of the mist, even Free-Claw’s far-speak—” Ibed put full words to the scrivener’s thought.

“And any one of us could perceive with Hart’s Emerald Eye or ‘see’ with Soorta’s vision!” Hesta spoke in awe.

“Yes, all of these things would be possible and more besides, for, you see, to be thus ‘Bound’ means that we of the Pact, in uniting our Powers, will become something far greater than the sum of our individual Gifts.” Spoken slowly, the chapman’s words brought no elation to his listeners, for each knew without asking that such a working would not come without cost.

*Much danger!* The Pard was swift to signal a warning.

“Aye, Free-Claw. There is danger and a price to be exacted for entering into so mighty a Bond.” The merchant responded.

“Then say on, Chapman. We would know it—now!” Belicaus’s voice rang with unaccustomed heat. “The price can be no greater than that which will be exacted by our enemy if we fail to act.”

“Just so.” Ibed returned.

“I think I can guess what may happen,” Hart put in. “Whenever such Power is exerted it places an immense drain on the strength of the user. In our case it would affect whoever wields the Power as well as all other members of the Bond. Am I right?”

“Aye. For the most part, you have deduced correctly, however, there is one thing further. Say, if I were to employ Hart’s Gift for ‘looking off’ a wild beast, he would be bereft of that Power for a time.” Ibed explained.

“How long a time?” The scrivener wanted to know.

“That is dependent upon the intensity and duration of the employment of the ‘borrowed Gift’,” came the answer.

“And if the one, whose Gift is being borrowed, is present and taking part in the confrontation—then what?” This from Belicaus.

“That is where the intensifying of the Powers comes in.” Ibed sought to portray assurance in his answer, but something in the way he formed it left a nibbling doubt in Hart’s mind.

“So—when do we enter into this Bond?” Hesta seemed satisfied and was all for getting on with the process.

“I say that we call upon Owlglass and Soorta before attempting anything.” Belicaus cautioned.

“Of course! Naught can be done without their agreement and participation.” Ibed responded.

“Must they physically be present?” Hart asked.

“That would be best. I fear I do not have sufficient Power to bridge the distance between us and them and still be sure of success.” The chapman stood and directed his words to the pard. “Free-Claw, will you far-call our friends and ask them to meet us in three days time beneath the oak when the moon has set?”

*Done!* The cat responded instantly, then in the space of a few breaths: *They come.*

The intervening three days were taken up in preparation for the Binding, each having his or her particular assignment. Hart was given the task of gathering as much salt as he could without drawing undue attention to himself. This he did by paying visits to the great kitchen stores of Stamglen Castle and engaging the cooks and drudges in conversation.

Carefully exerting his Gift at influence, the scrivener was given free access to the large bins and crocks of cooking and pickling salt. He soon tucked three fat sacks of the valuable condiment in a corner of his loft to await the meeting.

In the meanwhile, Hesta busied herself in preparation of certain aromatic herbs and brewing of a concoction that stretched even her legendary skills, for the recipe given her by Ibed was like none she had ever known. As a measure of the trust she had come to place in the chapman, she refrained even from questioning his directions.

Belicaus’ task included a trek to the Koildom Mountains, a day’s journey distant, there to locate a certain icy spring, trickling from a high fissure near the summit of the tallest peak. Here he collected a measure of the pure liquid in a silver flask. Having done so, he spent an entire night in meditation culminating with a dawn blessing of the contents, for, in Ibed’s words, “Only sacred water will serve for the Binding.”

As for the task the chapman set himself, Hart knew only that Ibed was seen taking a bolt of fine cloth from his store of merchandise and heading off toward the home of a widow woman, known for her skill with a needle.

*Much talk!* Grumbled the pard as they settled to rest on the night before the appointed day of Binding.

“Oh, Cat of few words. Just think: none but you could fulfill such a task.” Hart laughed.

*Head hurt from far-speak.* Free-Claw was unmoved by the scrivener’s compliment.

“It is for the best of causes, though. If not for your Gift, one of us would have had to travel all the way to Kolroven to summon our friends and much time should have been lost!” Hart reached into his pocket for a tidbit of cheese he had saved from his supper, knowing how the pard relished the treat.

*Some better now.* If a cat could look hopeful, Free-Claw certainly now wore such an expression as his luxurious whiskers quivered slightly.

“Oh, all right. Take the lot.” Hart unwrapped a chunk he was planning to eat when they rose to prepare for the Day of Binding. “How is your head now?”

*Good now. Could make more talk.* The pard’s lip curled slightly in his imitation of a human grin.

Hart flung the blanket at him and the two rolled in a mock-fight like two juveniles. But soon the seriousness of what lay ahead of them damped the momentary merriment.

“The things Ibed instructed you to tell Owlglass and Soorta to bring: what possible use has he for drape moss and stinkbark?” Hart grew thoughtful.

*Blackrock and stoneworms?* The pard added his questioning to the puzzle.

“All we can do is wait and see, though I cannot help but wonder.” Hart snuffed the single candle that had lit their way into the loft and with a sigh rolled himself in the blanket.

At various times throughout the day members of the Pact slipped away from Under Stamglen, deliberately going in different directions to deflect curiosity. They dared not be seen as traveling anywhere together. Indeed, Ibed had given each the words of a warding spell to further shield themselves.

Late evening found the Stamglen contingent gathered beneath the gnarled oak, eating journey bread and sipping some watered wine that Ibed had provided.

“We must not weight ourselves with over much food, nor muddle our heads with drink. Too much rests upon what we must accomplish to risk failure,” the chapman said.

When they had finished the meal Ibed instructed each to set forth what he or she had prepared, the better to explain the coming ceremony. While engaged in arranging the supplies before the large flat stone that lay beneath the tree branches, Owlglass, Soorta and Softstep arrived with their contributions to the growing collection.

Greetings being exchanged, the company was bidden to take seats in a circle around the boulder. Ibed spoke: “My friends, first I must give you my thanks for the unquestioning trust you have shown in me these past three days. None is more aware than I how curious my instructions must have seemed. Even for you who are not unfamiliar with the workings of enchantment, they could not have made any sense.”

“Little that has faced us of late has carried any logic, magical or otherwise.” Hart remarked.

“That is true. To understand what has occurred in Stamglen, we must reach far with our minds and even farther with our spirits.” The chapman responded.

“So, let us be about the business at hand!” Belicaus’ voice bore an edge of impatience.

“Indeed. The task can be put off no longer. I will endeavor to guide you through the Rite of Binding. Much of what must be done will fall to me. Though it will seem extraordinary to you at times, take care to maintain the strictest discipline of concentration. Never allow your thoughts to drift from what will be taking place in the center of this circle, especially upon this stone.” Ibed looked slowly around the group, pausing to make eye contact with each and receive their nod of agreement in turn.

This done, the chapman took each of the sacks of salt and, pacing slowly poured the contents in a wide swath around the outside of their circle. Next he crushed bits of the stinkbark, momentarily releasing its pungent odor. This he scattered about inside the circle, even at and upon the feet of his companions.

When all were near to gagging at the smell, Ibed rolled a large bundle of the drape moss and, dropping to hands and knees, carefully swept the remains of the stinkbark into a small pile, which he then gathered and cast out of the circle.

Pausing, he took a moment to explain, “The salt acts as a purifying barrier against anything that might seek to penetrate from without. The bark and moss have the effect of cleansing our circle of the least trace of Dark magic.”

Taking up a wooden box Ibed tilted its contents onto the center of the large stone. Slowly a pair of stoneworms raised their snouts and seemed to be waiting for a signal. Seeing this, the chapman gently tapped the rock between them with a small brass rod. Immediately the small creatures lowered their heads and fastened themselves to the seemingly impenetrable surface.

With instinctive efficiency the tiny worms began to excavate a shallow depression in the boulder that in a surprisingly short time became a pit the width of a man’s fist and twice as deep. Ibed carefully retrieved the distended carvers and placed them once more in the box.

“Behold, a receptacle made by no man’s hand!” The chapman spoke with a tone that denoted a prescribed declaration.

While Hart and the others of the Pact watched in fascination, the dusky skinned man took three chunks of the blackrock and, using a small brass hammer, pounded one into a powder. All this he placed carefully into the depression carved by the stoneworms.

Turning to Owlglass, Ibed called for the hermit to bring flint and steel to strike fire to the waiting powder. A scarlet flame answered the sparks, rising with avid intensity, which Ibed proceeded to feed with the remaining blackrock. When the fire was fairly roaring, he beckoned to Hesta.

“Herb Woman, bring forth the potion.”

She obeyed and with a slightly trembling hand passed to Ibed what she had labored two days to prepare. The chapman took the heavy crock and set it in the midst of the flame upon the rock. Leaving this to heat for a time, he turned and opened a pannier that lay waiting at his side. From it he drew forth six white cloaks and two smaller drapes of the same fine linen.

“Draw these over yourselves, my friends, for they represent the righteousness of our cause.” With that Ibed placed the drapes across the backs of the pard and the wolf, who took it quietly as though it was no uncommon thing to be so garbed.

“We draw near the crux of our working. If any of you have so much as the smallest doubt, speak it now.” The dark eyes scanned each face.

“No? Then let us proceed.” With a long hook, he next drew the crock from the fire and, using another clump of drape moss, grasped it and held it aloft, reciting words understood by none present.

“Hold forth your cups!” came Ibed’s command and the gathering responded, each with a silver cup he had provided. The chapman poured a draft of the potion into each cup, taking care to include some in bowls set for the four legged members of the group.

A heavy steam rose from each container, curling aloft in streamers that wove together above their heads. “Drink!” The sharp command rung out and as one the Pact members drank the fiery liquid, yet felt no discomfort from it.

All stood in silence, not quite sure what to expect from their libation. Slowly a tingling began in Hart’s middle and he could see from the expressions of the others that they too had begun to experience the potion’s effects.

Simultaneous howls burst from the four footed members, echoed by gasps of surprise from the humans. As best as the scrivener could have described the sensation, had he tried, it was like to a fountain, at once fiery and icy, bursting forth from within to rise upward through his body and spread to the mind—bringing—a sudden—what?

“Seek not to express what you now feel. There exist no words, no means open to man nor beast to do so. Simply know that each of us is now in the Bond.”

With an air of finality the chapman held out his hand to Belicaus, who handed him the vessel of blessed water.

Shouting, “Behold!” Ibed al Zahr dashed the water upon the fire that yet burned steadily on the great stone in their midst. The answering explosion of steam near tumbled all from the circle, but when they would have fallen backward, they found themselves enclosed within an impenetrable wall.

Before he realized what he was doing, Hart drew his wand from his belt and touched the misty enclosure. As the nested stone contacted the walling bubble, the whole was suddenly infused with a brilliant emerald glow that cleared to reveal—they were not alone!

Standing, arms linked in close rank, completely encircling the group, were a company of Dhroghii. No one spoke, but at a bow from Ibed, the Dhroghii Queen stood forth, her white skin glistening in the dying green glow. She nodded and held up her hand, a gesture that was mirrored by the scores of others with her. In each there flashed responding green fire from stones the duplicates of that which now flamed from the tip of Hart’s wand.

“So, it is done!” Ibed spoke at last. “The Bond is set, but what allies have you called forth, Scrivener?”

By now the misty wall had faded, leaving the way open to approach the newcomers. “These be friends, whom I met on my journey of proving. I and they both benefited by the blossoming of my Gifts,” Hart explained simply, bowing low to the diminutive people.

“Hail, friends!” The Dhroghii Queen stepped into the circle and faced Soorta. “My Lady, we meet again.”

“Y—you know each other?” Hart stammered.

“Aye, we do. But that is another story.” Soorta smiled. “Know this: the Dhroghii are indeed allies to be valued. Their valor is legend among the peoples of the Elder Kingdoms.”

The tiny Queen inclined her head in acknowledgement of Soorta’s words. “And we pay our debts.” At this she pointedly looked at Hart.

The scrivener blushed slightly, ducking his head to hide his embarrassment. “No debt is owed.”

“None save the price of the liberation of my race!” Replied the chalky skinned woman with some heat.

“This sounds like the making of a fine tale!” Belicaus interjected. “One that calls for a hosting.”

“That we can provide,” Hesta laughed and, beckoning to Belicaus moved to where she had left a bundle.

In a short time, all were settled beneath the venerable oak, sharing drafts of ale and portions of bread, cheese and cold mutton. Hart looked around the strange assembly and marveled at all that had occurred to bring together such different peoples. Standing to his feet, he prepared to recount to his friends how he had come to meet the Dhroghiis.

 

 

 

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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.