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A Mankind Witch: Chapter One

       Last updated: Tuesday, April 5, 2005 02:55 EDT



    "You speak Frankish?" the Karl-translator asked, when the guards deposited him in front of the throne in the high thatched hall.

    More fluently than you, thought Cair. But he put on a show of concentration. Nodded earnestly. "I have small." Cair was still not even sure where he was. Some remote little Kingdom in Norselands seemed a fairly sure bet. But now came the difficult bit. He had to lie, and lie fluently.

    "Vortenbras King he says have you kin who would pay blot... blood-price for you? Ransom." Faced with Cair's blank look, the Karl tried again. "Give him money for you."

    Cair wrinkled his forehead in a show of effort. "You tell him-King, me poor man." If word went out that some Norseman was demanding a ransom for Cair Aidin... Well, even in fleets of the corsairs there were a good few who would pay for him... Dead. If word got to one of the Holy Roman Empire's spies that the Redbeard was a prisoner here -- they would pay generously. Very generously. They would keep him alive too. Their torturers were good at that. Dead people felt no pain. When he'd last heard, the Republic of Venice also was offering five hundred thousand Ducats for his head. "Me poor man," he repeated. It would mean slavery, but that was better than the alternatives. He would have some chance of escape from slavery. And for some obscure reason the slaves here appeared to be left entire. The threat of castration might have persuaded him to try his luck at escaping from the gilded but carefully guarded cage they would put a high-value prisoner into, instead. However, he'd made sure of that already -- all that happeed to slaves was a branding. And, once branded, slaves didn't appear well guarded at all. Perhaps the Norse trusted to the remote wildness of this place.

    The bearlike man on the throne spat disgustedly at the translation. Bellowed something obviously derogatory in Norse. It was like enough to Frankish to have a haunting familiarity. "What him-King say?"

    "Vortenbras King say you too old for good Thrall. Not enough work in you before you go die. And too small to plow with."

    Too old! He was thirty-five. Not a young man, true. But in his prime! Then Cair understood the implication of the second part of the statement. He'd heard of that, yes. Poor places where they plowed with teams of men or women instead of horses. They did that in the high Atlas, apparently. But for one such as he to be put to such a use by these primitive barbarians!

    The hulking bear of a man snapped an order. Cair found himself being dragged backwards --by the hair -- by his translator. He had to turn and follow, stumbling. He was going to have learn this language. Fast. And he was going to have to restrain himself from killing idiots like this hair-dragger.

    "Where are you taking me?" he asked.

    "To be branded. Then" and the disdain showed in the man's voice. "You go to be woman's slave. Signy."

    Cair thought -- by the tone -- that the last word was probably some kind of Norse insult.



    "What your name, slave?" demanded the stable-master in mangled Frankish, looking down at him, as he sprawled on the soiled straw he been shoved down onto.

    His new burned flesh throbbed. Cair added that to the reckoning. But right now he had to survive until that reckoning came due. And that meant that he had to stop being a Corsair admiral -- and become an anonymous slave. He was not Cair Aidin until he stood on the deck of his own ship again. The barbarians couldn't pronounce his name anyway. He bowed his head. "Cair, Master." He would be that, and think of himself as just that, until he was free.

    "A good name for a thrall," The stable master grunted. "Get up. Move dung," he pointed to a wooden shovel. "And learn our tongue."

    Cair, the new slave, shoveled horse-dung. That was another thing they'd pay for, when he escaped. But for now he was content to bide his time. To study his captors and the place he was captive in. When he made his break, he intended to be successful. And, if he had to bring half of the Barbary fleet here, he'd burn this place around their ears. The 'palace' and its halls were wooden. The roofs were thatch. They'd burn well. They thought that being this far from the coast would save them. Nothing would.

    But after a few days of captivity, Cair -- the new thrall -- was somewhat less sanguine about it all. The first thing that struck him was that they'd scarcely give a slave at this much liberty if escape was a real possibility. He soon realized that, beside the brand, there were other trammels set on a thrall. And one of them was that, here in the north, he was a small, unarmed fellow. Among the corsairs he'd been of average height. It was not something that had worried him, previously. With a sword in hand, or a ship to command, he was the equal or the better of any other man. Here he was utterly forbidden to even touch either a ship or an edged weapon. A few older, very privileged thralls had belt-knives. Small belt-knives.

    Besides being a mere small unarmed slave-thrall, the bottom of the Norse social order, he also found he was at the bottom of the pecking order for slave-thralls. He was a woman's slave. And not just any woman. Signy.

    You didn't, it would appear, go any lower, around these parts. Being the lowest of the low meant that you got the worst of everything, from sleeping quarters to food, if you could call it that. They were teaching him the job with a good supply of buffets, blows and occasional buckets of filth. And even others thralls were free to hand out a good beating if they felt like it.

    On the second day, still struggling with the language, and still wracked by the last chill of fever, Cair found this out the hard way. He wasn't even too sure what he'd done wrong. All he knew was that he was getting a fiercesome beating with a broken stave for doing it. And the fact that he'd dared to strike back was making it worse. The thrall doing the beating was heavier, taller and better fed than most of them. He was one of Queen Albruna's slaves -- not supposed to be in the stables at all. The other thralls stood and cheered and jeered. There wasn't much entertainment in the stables. Certainly no one lifted a hand to stop it.

    The fight was going badly. And then it was going worse. The big fellow kneed him in the crotch, and, as Cair's head came forward, he cracked it down against one of the stalls.

    Cair swore, amid the blur of pain... and then the hitting stopped.

    Cair managed to stand upright. Blood was streaming from his nose, and the world was definitely out of focus. But the big tow-haired thrall was no longer laying into him. And the stable was oddly silent. Cair closed both eyes and then tried opening them again. His vision was still far from normal, but he could see the Thrall, stretched out full length on the stable floor. His head appeared to have turned into a heavy wooden bucket.

    That was quite enough for Cair. He was plainly either dead or concussed, and in either case he was going to sit down. Now.

    He slumped against the wooden stall partition. He was vaguely aware that some of the other thralls had hauled the bucket head away. But he felt too sore and sick to care. And no-one had come to drive him to his feet and to work again. He drifted away to somewhere between concussion and sleep.



    He awoke to find someone kneeling next to him. Lifting his head. Holding something to his lips. "Drink this."

    He sipped. It was a clay dipper of water. He tried to work out who it was giving this nectar to him. The light was bad in the stable by now, not that it was wonderful at any time, but evening was plainly close.

    It was a woman. Not a thrall he'd seen before. A scrawny lass that had plainly been crying. He sipped some more and then tried to sit up. Quite involuntarily, he groaned.

    "You've taken quite a beating, by the looks of you," said the woman, critically. Not particularly sympathetically, but kindly enough. "Can you stand up?" she asked.

    Cair tested his limbs. "I think so. I'll try."

    "Good," she said. "This is Korvar's stall. He doesn't like being put elsewhere. Come. Up."

    She hauled at his arm and he staggered to his feet. She made no attempt to support him, but he did manage to grab the stall edge and steer his way out. The woman appeared more concerned at fussing around the stall, and leading an elderly warhorse across to it, than watching what he was doing, so he sat down again. But his head was clearing, slowly. She patted and soothed the horse. "Next time don't bleed in this stall," she said to Cair, sharply. "The smell of blood gets Korvar overexcited." She leaned over and kissed the horse's muzzle. The horse twitched and sneezed. She laughed. "There, you big old silly. Settle now." Eventually, she came out of the stall, and looked critically at Cair. "There is some horse liniment I made up for strains up on the shelf in the corner. I've found that it helps a bit for the bruises. Then you'd better get across to your quarters, before you get another beating."

    It was only after she'd left that it occurred to his muzzy mind that she'd addressed him in Frankish. Not just Frankish but good Frankish. Spoken as a highborn noblewoman would, not some stable-girl. But he'd thought no more of it. His head throbbed and so did his ribs. He'd roughly slathered some of the horse-liniment on himself. It burned in the raw places, and woke him more thoroughly, but perhaps the herbs in it would do him some good. He'd staggered over to the stinking hovel where he'd been told to sleep. It was small, dirty, crowded, smoky, full of vermin... and oddly silent when he'd crept in. He'd found a space easily enough, and slept.

    Getting up the next morning was even more torture. The bruises had set, and for all that it was midsummer, it was still cold at first light. He chewed on his coarse rye crust and supped the weak, sour small-beer handed to them in the garth outside the kitchen. In the kitchen, the morning's work had plainly begun well before, and the noise was enough to make him retreat from it. He chewed cautiously. His mouth was sore. Looking around he realized that he stood in a little island of silence, while the other ragged Thralls jostled and talked -- in muted voices, true, among themselves. And across the yard he caught sight of the tormentor of yesterday. He had a dirty bandage around his head. And the minute his eyes locked with Cair's, he shied away.

    Cair's own head had bled, and his hair was matted with dried blood. But it was only when he'd helped to lead the horses out to the paddocks down beside the water, and took the opportunity -- along with one of the other two Thralls, to wash his face in the cold water that he could wash it clear gingerly. And peer at his reflection in the water. He didn't think -- all things considered, that he looked that terrifying. So on the way back up to the stables, he ventured to ask what was going on. The other man who'd bothered to wash had spoken peasant Frankish to him yesterday. He was presumably a Frankish prisoner taken on one of the local's raids. "Why is everyone behaving as if I have the plague this morning?"

    "I haven't done anything to you," said the other thrall, warily.

    "Except kick me and trip me face down into the dung heap yesterday," said Cair.

    The thrall held up his hands pacifically. "But I didn't know, then."

    "Didn't know what?" asked Cair.

    "That you were a manwitch." Even after the rudimentary wash by the lake-side, the man's face was none too clean. The dirt was the only bit of color on it, right now.

    Cair was about to deny this latest piece of ridiculousness when it struck him that it might be useful. These were pagans, after all. They weren't likely to accuse him of trafficking with the devil. "Who told you?" he asked, doing his best to look threatening. He raised on eyebrow, a trick he'd practiced and used to some effect on prisoners himself. If this was the only coin he had to play, well, then he would play it with skill.

    The thrall's eyes widened, and looked ready to bolt. "I saw, yesterday, what you did to Eddi. And I've heard from Piers that one of the other new captives says you were floating on the sea, miles from the land."

    Now, thought Cair. All I have to do is find out what I "did" to Eddi, who was presumably the person who had given him the bruises that hurt so devilishly this morning. Whatever it was, Cair hoped the bastard was at least half as sore as he was. He ached. Even his aches had aches. He could use any reputation that would stop this from happening again. There were a few tricks he could use to foster the story. There were a fair number of things a civilized man knew to be science that these ignorant pagans would take for magic. But for now he kept his mouth still and let the tongue of rumor speak instead. From experience, he knew that it always spoke louder than any mere man could. He and his brother had cultivated rumors of the Redbeards' uncanny successes, and of the folly of resisting them, for that just that reason. Even the Venetians were inclined to run, and, when cornered, surrender rather than fight. It always made for easier victories, if the victims were half paralyzed with fear before they even went into the fight. Logical thought did not come into these things, thought Cair wryly. "See you behave yourself today, and you won't get what you deserve. I'll stay my vengeance. For now."

    The thrall nodded so eagerly that his head was in danger of parting from his shoulders. "Nobody will give you trouble. I promise."

    "Good. Now show me what I am supposed to do around here. I don't want more beatings." He saw, instantly that this had been the wrong thing to say, and rectified it immediately. "My powers are low now, too low after my magics at sea, calling the King's ship to me, to undertake great workings again. But I can still manage to deal with the likes of Eddi. Or you. However, I have been here for a greater purpose than to waste magic on thralls if I don't have to."

    The thrall nodded. "We'd better go and muck out then. Signy never says anything, except if the horses are badly looked after."

    There was than name again. He'd taken it for a Norse insult the first time he'd heard it. This thrall and the others in the stable yard put a fair degree of disdain into it. Yet she was apparently a Princess. "Who is this Signy?"

    "The old king's daughter. King Vortenbras's sister. Half-sister."

    It was curious that these slaves would even dare to treat someone that high-born with anything but the very greatest respect, or even omit a title. They certainly spoke the name of Vortenbras's mother with hushed deference. It appeared that how much respect a thrall got from his fellows was largely determined by who owned you. Thus the sooner he, Cair, got himself transferred to the service of some more important personage, the better. It would make life more comfortable, until he could escape.

    "They say that she is a seid-witch," said the thrall with disdain. "Or at least the Queen does. But I never saw any sign of it."



    During the rest of the day, Cair gradually pieced together a great deal from his new informants, Henri, once a fisherman from the coast of nearby Helgoland, and Thjalfi, their half-witted companion-in-labor. Thjalfi had no problem repeating the story, over and over again, of Eddi and the bucket. It would appear that Thjalfi had, prior to Cair, been Eddi's favorite kicking-target. By the way the moonling smelled, Cair wished that Eddi had kicked him into the water. Thjalfi had no Frankish, but he was slow of speech as well as wits, and he repeated things endlessly. As a learning tool he was a noisome asset. If Cair understood Thjalfi right, Cair had called Eddi "Buckethead" and a string of strange and obviously magical words. And the bucket had come from nowhere and landed on Eddi's head.

    The Berber-coast obscenity Cair had yelled at Eddi, hadn't been 'buckethead'. But it did sound similar. Luck and a falling bucket had been on his side. Now he just had to capitalize on it.

    From Henri he learned a great deal more. King Vortenbras of Telemark's hall was some fifteen leagues from the coast -- for just the reason that Kdir had surmised. Once the small Norse 'kingdom' had had its seat on the coast. And inevitably had raided far and wide... and brought down the wrath of the Danes and Holy Roman Empire on its King's Hall. Now, with the Royal Hall tucked into the mountains, beside what had been an ancient Holy site, Silver coming from the mountain mines, and a treaty with the Holy Roman Empire, Telemark under King Vortenbras was a growing power. Rumor had it that the limits of this power irked the King. He was looking to stretch them, folk said.

    Then, as the afternoon drew in, Cair got another surprise. As he was carrying in a load of straw, a woman spoke in Norse, plainly giving some instruction. Cair felt that he ought to know the speaker. He peered up from under his load, and saw Henri and Thjalfi bowing. "Ja, Princess Signy."

    It was the woman he'd taken for a thrall-wench the night before.

    Her dress was indeed shabby for a noblewoman, but in the clearer light he could see that it had been, at least once upon a time, a good riding habit. She wore some jewelry too. Poor stuff, but if he had noticed those bracelets he'd never have mistaken her for a thrall. Her hand rested on the head of one of the hunting dogs that seemed to slope around everywhere in this place. She was inspecting the stable, and pointing to a tag end of a halter-rope buried in the bedding straw. Cair was standing a great deal closer to it than she was, and he could barely see it. The woman must have eyes like a hawk.

    She was a slight little thing compared to most of the women he'd seen here, fine boned, they called it back on Lesbos, where he'd grown up. Her hair was so strained back and tightly braided that it was virtually invisible from the front. He put down the net of hay. Bowed, considering the ramifications of his encounter last night. What had a noblewoman -- who had plainly been crying, been doing in the stables after the household was abed? Cair was a thinker. Life, especially to a master of ships and men, was a chess-game and you had to think at least five moves ahead if you wished to win. "Pick that up!" she snapped at him -- in Frankish. "Don't you watch where you put things down, Thrall? They told me I had a new stable-Thrall that spoke no Norse and was too old for good work, but didn't expect you to be an idiot too. I suppose I should have. They always give me the insolent, sick, lame and lazy. I don't care elsewhere, but you'll learn to do proper job with the horses or I'll have you whipped. Even if I have to do it myself. And learn to speak Norse."

    Picking up the hay, hastily he did his best to bow again. But she was no longer paying any attention to him. Instead she'd gone with Henri to inspect some saddle galls on the rough-coated bay. Her voice as she talked to the horse was now as gentle as it had been waspish a minute ago. And, if she'd recognized him, she'd not given any sign of it.

    Afterwards, when she'd left, Cair found himself doing some further cleaning of the two stalls that the Princess had been dissatisfied with. He'd already come to realize that her section of the huge stable was cleaner by several degrees than the other parts. He was also aware that the horses in this part of the stable were old. Several of them were definitely beyond work.

    Henri grumbled. "It's only those of us in the stables that she makes work. Those house-thralls of hers are the laziest bunch of sluts you've ever met. The Queen's women work their fingers raw. But not Signy's. No. Half the time they tell her what to do. And the Queen lets them! But I'd swear the Mistress spies on us down here. Look at Vortenbras's men. Half the day they can sleep in hay-loft. The only time I thought I'd try that she turned up and nearly pulled my ear off. And we get the worst food and everything."

    "That is going to change."

    Henri blinked at him. "No, it's not. The King doesn't love his half-sister."

    Cair stared pointedly at him. "I have my powers. Do you want your head in a bucket?"

    Henri gaped at him. "You mean..."

    "I mean the Princess Signy wants her horses cared for. A fine and beautiful noble lady must have what she desires." Cair was much more observant than his fellow peasant horse boys. He'd looked up, just briefly, a few moments before. Above the stalls, the roof-beams had been layered with rough timber to make a sort of ceiling and junk store. The timber didn't fit too well. And through one of the cracks Cair had glimpsed a piece of embroidery that he'd seen earlier.

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