Rusted Armor

By Andre Norton and Caroline Fike

Chapter Thirty

Villeins crowded into one end of the quadrangle while their betters took bench seats on the three sides, reserved for their pleasure. To the lively strains of pipe and tabor came a score of dancers, decked in their finest garb, with long streamers of ribbons tied at elbows and trailing from collars and hems. About each girl’s head rested a crown of flowers.

At the center of the grassy area in the heart of Castle Stamglen stood a tall pole, newly erected, reaching near as high as the top of the surrounding curtain walls. At its crown a banner, displaying the Boar of Stormund, proudly announced to all that the Lord of the Manor was in residence. Spaced below the fluttering pennon were hung several shields identifying the ranking families present for the garland ale.

As the colorfully dressed young women wound in and out among the spectators, loud cheers rose in greeting and several inebriated members of the audience attempted to join in the gaiety with somewhat less success than intended. Gales of laughter erupted when a particularly large nobleman managed to split his hose while executing a deep bow to the lovely garlanded performers.

Several pairs of dancers carried long withes bent into giant wickets and entwined with more colorful ribbons and flower garlands. As the dance progressed, the young women performed intricate steps, weaving in and out of the wickets, never missing a beat of the joyful music.

Finally the ale reached its climax with dancers passing into the audience, noble and common alike, seizing the hands of likely subjects and drawing them back toward the great pole. Then each young woman took hold of one of the wide ribbon bands that depended from a point just below the shields. Linking arms with their none too reluctant partners they began a stately procession around the pole.

Half the group moved in one direction and half in the other, being careful to alternate in a pattern known to the watchers as a hey. The resulting pattern of colors that adorned the pole, brought another delighted cheer from the watchers as the dancers curtseyed low to their partners, signaling the end of the ceremony.

In scarcely a turn of the glass, the caravan began its slow and noisy progress out of the great gate, across the barbican and onto the road that would take it eventually to the Royal Court.

Hart stood in the shadow of a watch tower as he observed the departure from atop the great wall. Even at this height he could hear the babble of voices, shouting to be heard over the barking of dogs, neighing of steeds and the incessant squeak and rattle of cart and carriage wheels.

As the procession passed out of sight, a deep and somber silence seemed to settle over the great castle. Perhaps it was the scrivener’s knowledge of the task ahead, but the very atmosphere took on a deathlike pall in contrast to the gaiety of the afternoon gone.

Sighing, Hart turned and ducked through the low entry onto the spiral stair that would take him below and the beginning of the mission to which he now knew he had been pointing for many months.

*Hide now?* Came the subdued mind voice of his friend in fur.

“Aye, Free-Claw. There is naught we can do now but wait until the agreed upon time, after the last chime of Compline, when we must take up our posts.”

*Eat?* A decided pang of hunger accompanied the word.

“Not a bad idea. Let us to the kitchen. ‘Tis as good a place to ‘hide’ as any.” Hart chuckled. His cat companion would never let a small matter of a battle with the Dark keep him from food.

As evening settled over the castle bringing with it a chill to the early spring air, Hart was grateful to be seated in front of the cavernous fire pit in the central kitchen, from which all meals were served to the knights and nobles.

Since Lord Stormund had elected not to join the progress to Court, a contingent of knights remained with him at Stamglen to act as guard. It was for these that the servants were preparing a fragrant stew seasoned with onions and afloat with chunks of beef, a rare treat. Hart looked hopefully at the garrulous cook and was not disappointed.

“Right, so a scrivener needs a ‘earty meal too?” Laughing, the portly man ladled a generous portion into a wooden bowl and set it before Hart. Adding a large chunk of dark bread and a pot of ale, he grinned and hurried away to assure the drudges were at their job of scouring out the great kettle, now empty of stew.

Hart could feel the warm pressure of the pard against his leg where his companion kept out of sight beneath the rough hewn table where the scrivener sat to eat his meal. “I’ll not forget you,” he whispered. “I just don’t need to call undue attention to your presence. There are some who would not approve, though not my friend Paggins there. He is far too friendly to be concerned about the odd beast or two paying a visit to his kitchen.”

Free-Claw’s only answer was a purr as he consumed chunk after chunk of meat spirited out of Hart’s bowl. When at length both had satisfied their hunger, Hart curled up under the table with the pard to catch what rest he could before Compline. He well knew that this promised to be a long and sleepless night.

The fire was banked for the night and quiet reigned for a short space as the distant bell of St. Stam chimed the final canonical hour. Stretching cramped muscles, Hart flexed his hands and winced as a sharp pain in his left hand answered. “It’s well that I no longer heft the weapons of a knight. This hand is all but useless to me,” Hart remarked, mostly to himself.

*Manfriend weapon not of hand, but soul.* The solemn response surprised him slightly. The scrivener never ceased to be amazed at the workings of the cat’s mind.

“Let us hope that weapon is at the ready!” Hart stated with some heat.

While the conversation had been progressing, man and pard were moving stealthily along the corridor that lead to the vaults below the kitchen wing of the castle. There they met monk and chapman, who was carrying a thick bundle.

“I have brought cloaks—cloaks that possess certain ‘properties’,” Ibed explained. “They will serve to blur the enemy’s vision somewhat, though only until he is fully aware of our presence. We need every scrap of advantage we can muster.”

“Aye, you have the right of it there, Chapman.” Brother Belicaus agreed.

“Is Hesta stationed at her post?” Hart was beginning to feel very anxious.

“She is that. What’s more, she had brought a small cauldron to use as a mate to Soorta’s scrying pool—the better to communicate.” The monk reported.

“Excellent!” The chapman exclaimed as he drew out three small flasks from his pouch. “Here, take this but do not drink it until the last possible moment. The effect is temporary.”

“The potion?” Hart reached for one of the containers and tucked it carefully into his own belt purse.

“Aye. You and I will need to partake of ours when we descend into the lower level. We need to avoid the striking of a light and this will aid us to see.” Ibed turned to the monk. “Belicaus, use your best judgment as to when you should employ the potion. We know not what tricks the enemy may have waiting.”

“Think you he knows we are coming?” The tall man’s features were near hidden beneath the cowl of the cloak Ibed had provided.

“Yes. He knows, though probably not the hour. It is up to us to see that he is unaware of our approach until the last possible moment.” The chapman’s statement thrust home the full gravity of their peril. Hart felt his stomach clench as though from a blow.

Reaching to clasp each of the others’ hands, Ibed spoke once more: “The time has come; we can delay no longer. Be safe, my friends. I pray that each of us comes through this, if not unscathed, most surely victorious!”

“Amen!” was Belicaus’s deep voiced answer echoed by Hart’s scarcely audible voice.

*So be it!* Free-Claw stood on hind legs and placed forepaws over the scrivener’s and chapman’s joined hands.

With that the monk hunkered down next to the wall where Hart had located the tiny sigil of a green eye. Laying one hand over the mark and the other over his own Emerald Eye, the scrivener spoke a word that came, unbidden to his consciousness: “Croache!”

In an instant there yawned before the two men a narrow opening and they lost no time slipping through this, the pard close on their heels. Retracing the path Hart, and later Ibed, had taken some days earlier, they came soon to the fissure that marked the way to the lowest level of Stamglen, indeed a place that seemed to be no part of the ancient castle—but another place altogether.

Hart paused and took the pard’s head in his grasp, looking deep into the dark green eyes. “Friend of my heart, be safe, watch with care!”

*Free-Claw watch. Good hunting, Manfriend!* The pard turned about thrice and proceeded to sit demurely, curling his long tail about his feet, looking like nothing more than a magnificent feline stature.

Uncorking their flasks, Hart and Ibed quickly swallowed Hesta’s potion. Expecting the rush of sensation such as he had felt in Soorta’s barrow, he was only slightly disappointed. This did not course through him like fire, but in moments he was aware of a quickening of his senses, so much so that Ibed’s whisper felt like a shout to his heightened hearing. “I will go first.”

“B—but—” Hart was about to protest when the chapman swung out and down the sheer drop, confidently placing his feet in the notches chiseled there. There was nothing to do but follow in a moment.

As they descended more quickly, now that they could see clearly about them for the distance of a stone’s throw, Hart determined that he would not allow the merchant to go before him into the portal—no this was his fight to carry to the enemy!

When at length the two men reached the bottom and followed the now clearly visible pathway, the scrivener was ready with his argument. As they entered the crystalline chamber, void of reflection now for want of light, Hart spoke softly, “Chapman, I must be the first to enter the portal!” When Ibed would have made argument, he held up his scarred hand, silencing the merchant.

“If, as we suspect, before us lies the place where Lazarous is dabbling in the Dark Arts, I must front him first! Don’t you understand? He has brutally robbed me of my honor, my heritage, and now we know—my inheritance.” Hart’s voice shook with emotion. “If I do not face him and call him to account, I am not worthy to regain that lost honor.”

Compassion was written large on Ibed’s face as he looked for a few moments at the young man. “Very well, Hart. It is your right, just as it would be mine to face those who so horribly wronged me in the distant past. Go—I will follow.”

“Give me the space of three score beats of your heart. That should allow me to pass the portal and t—take any blow that may come. If I do not survive that—well it will not matter much, will it?” Hart swallowed to still the dread that was rising within him.

“It will matter to me, to those who stand behind and about us!” Ibed gripped the scrivener’s shoulder. “You have more Power than you know, my son. Only when you have great need, will it manifest. I know that from experience, believe me.”

“Then I shall soon know the limits of my Gifts. There is no turning back. May this not be ‘farewell’ but ‘fare valiantly!” With that Hart threw back his hood, revealing the gleaming golden Cap of Knowledge that had so long covered his head. Touching his belted wand that responded in a brief flash of brilliant green light, he plunged into the gaping blackness of the portal.

No sooner had he passed through the opening, then there came a loud crash, not unlike the sound of a lightening strike, far too close. Looking back over his shoulder, Hart could see nothing, however, for the darkness around him was so thick that even his enhanced vision could not penetrate it. There was nothing for it but to push onward in hopes of winning free from the wretched place. Even the air about him felt heavy as though it would weight his limbs and hold him back.

Moving slower and slower, the scrivener came at last to another entrance, also hewn from the primal stone and dripping with slime which stung his questing hand. The moment he contacted the repulsive surface, his left hand was engulfed in such pain that he near cried out, only avoiding a scream by shoving his right hand into his mouth and biting hard.

Hart stood for several seconds until the pain subsided somewhat before entering the room that stood before him. There was light of a sort, coming from flickering torches set around the filth spattered walls. Large, the space had the look of once being used for—he could not be sure. What was it that Ibed had said? An ancient cultic worship place? The scrivener could well believe such, for some distance ahead, in the very center of the room stood what could only be an altar.

Dark stains streaked the sides and bits of unspeakable offal lay scattered around its base. Clearly many innocent creatures had fallen prey to evil experimentation. But, as revolting as was its condition, what chilled Hart’s soul lay atop the gory monolith. Bound with leathern cords, quite naked, lay the Lady Arin.

This time biting his tongue to hold back the nausea which surged up within him, Hart paused to look about the chamber. His enemy could not be far away; there was too much evidence of recent foul work.

The pitiful figure on the altar whimpered, shaking the scrivener from his frozen fascination. Lunging to reach the girl, he was suddenly jerked up short, as if by an invisible barrier. Indeed his forehead seemed to bounce from an unseen surface, unseen—but not unfelt. Reaching his hands out to trace this wall that could be felt only, he soon realized that there was no hope of reaching the girl by normal means.

Hart backed to the spot where he had entered the room and ducked behind a protruding stone column. He had to think. But before the scrivener could collect his thoughts, the humming he remembered hearing when he followed Arin before, began again, only this time it reached near a shriek and suddenly broke off.

Where the sound had seemed loudest now stood—Lazarous! But this was not the smooth Marshall of Stamglen, Champion of Lord Stormund. No, here was a creature, fully given over to the Dark. No longer the rod straight stance, but a crouch that seemed more fitting in a beast, announced his presence.

Drawing an involuntary breath, Hart stared. As he watched with a morbid fixation, Lazarous bent over the pale form before him. Guttural sounds issued from the champion’s twisted mouth as he deftly drew a thin blade across Arin’s arm. With all the skill of a leech, he cupped the wound and carefully collected the blood.

Hart began to shudder uncontrollably as he watched, when—

Whirling swiftly Lazarous screamed, “So, it is you!” As he gestured with the blade in Hart’s direction, a fiery cord seemed to leap from its tip and encircle the scrivener, drawing him back out into the room.

A sound like the rending of glass came from the unseen barrier as it dropped by the evil marshal’s will. Step by agonizing step, Hart was drawn toward the man, whose smile became the more obscene as he flicked his tongue into the small bowl of Arin’s blood.

A deathly cold fear knotted inside of Hart. Where was Ibed? Surely enough time had passed for the chapman to join him.

I cannot do this alone! Was the scrivener’s desperate thought.

“So, my young friend, you do not know when you are beaten. It seems that I must teach you once and for all.” With a twisted smirk, Lazarous turned the bladed wand, for this was what he held, toward Hart’s head. In an instant the Cap of Knowledge grew intensely cold and then shattered, tumbling over the scrivener’s shoulders to lie on the ground beneath his feet in a myriad of shards.

“So much for that toy, but—ah there is another!” This time the champion reached with the blade and slashed through Hart’s cloak and belt to loose the Dhroghii wand. Not quite bold enough to touch this talisman, however, Lazarous was content to see it too at the scrivener’s feet.

“Did you really think you could best me with such as that?” His maniacal laugh echoed about the chamber.

“Y—you w—won’t get away with this!” It took every ounce of strength in Hart’s frame to force the words from his lips.

“Oh? I won’t? Just who is in command, my dear dishonored knight? Your feeble attempts to thwart my grand scheme—foolish, very foolish!” Lazarous fairly cackled with glee as he began to prance about the room, always facing Hart, however. He was not quite sure enough of his ascendancy to turn his back on the scrivener.

“Your grand scheme? To seize all of Stamglen for yourself, no matter what the cost?” Hart spat out the words.

“Stamglen? That is but the first step. My Power will take me much farther than a simple manor.”

“Your Power? From what I see before me, you draw your Power from the darkest of the Dark—by blood magic!” Again the scrivener had to fight to express his thoughts.

“Yes. By whatever means that come to my hand, I intend to take what I desire, including this poor lump of quivering flesh.” Lazarous gestured toward Arin, now more dead than alive, upon the harsh stone pedestal.

“But—before I consummate the rite that will call forth ‘he who must not be named’, I must dispense with you, once and for all. I should have done that long ago and saved myself much trouble. If you have a god, pray to him now, for you have but moments to live. But—wait! I prepare to take this virgin, whose blood has opened the way to the world below—”

Coming so close to Hart that his fetid breath near choked the scrivener, Lazarous purred: “Unless I guess amiss, before me stands yet another virgin—pure knight!” The champion’s laughter spiraled into a screech as Hart’s face reddened.

“What is better than a virgin sacrifice to the Dark? Ah, yes, I have it! Two virgins—one to take the other and both to become—I see you take my meaning.”

As Lazarous’s words sunk in, Hart twisted in a frenzied attempt to free himself from the invisible bond that held him imprisoned. Bond—could it be? With a mental shout so anguished that it portrayed all the horror filling his soul, with bowed head Hart called— Would any—could any answer?

 

 

 

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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.