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A Mankind Witch: Chapter Two

       Last updated: Friday, April 8, 2005 22:03 EDT



Kingshall, Telemark

    It would have been difficult for Cair to have said just when he had moved into the role of manwitch. His facial color -- in a region where the slave-thralls had scant contact with the wider world, and had mostly never seen anyone with Mediterranean coloring and curly black hair, helped. To the ignorant, anything different was to be feared. It had probably started with his knowledge of elementary physical chemistry. Perhaps the King and his hearthmen were better informed, but the slave-thralls regarded very nearly everything as magic. Cair was a hardened empiricist who had studied with not one, but two, of the leading philosophers of the age. He was familiar with the works of Averroës, and had had long conversations with Biringuccio - one of his brother's captives, and now a trusted master-metallurgist in Carthage. He had dabbled in alchemistic experiments himself, making distillations, aqua regia, and aqua fortris, and iron vitriol. He'd experimented with different mixtures of black powder -- these barbarians still bought theirs, and used precious little of it. He had a firm grasp of mathematical thought, particularly geometry. It had been useful to him both as a commander of ships and in siegework. He'd spent many hours in debate of these and other matters with others of his social order in the Barbary states. It was what a gentleman did in winter, after all. It was that or drink and fornicate.

    And yet his most spectacular results had come from a small piece of badly flawed amber, and the minds of his audience. The amber he'd found down by the river-side. Perhaps this country was where it came from. Or perhaps it had once been a piece of bead. All Cair knew was that he'd had the marvelous attractive properties of rubbed amber displayed to him before. He'd jammed the amber into a knothole in a piece of twisted wood. It looked like some ancient piece of a bear's eye. He rubbed it with a piece of scrap wool plucked from a dog-rose thorn. He been absently rubbing it when two of the other Thralls came up to him. "Hear tell you are a Balewerker," said the one, in atrocious Frankish. Cair was getting used to the Norse brand of the Germanic languages, and could understand a bit more than he let on. He understood the aside, or at least the gist of it, which was "this should be good for a few laughs."

    Balewerker -- "evil-worker" was one of the titles given to Odin. The Pagans were quite content to have their gods capable of both good and ill, and you'd better respect them or you were likely to experience the ill-side. It reminded Cair of the mildly scandalous story of the young woman whom the priest had caught bowing when he mentioned the devil. The young woman of negotiable morals was hauled before the senior priest, who had demanded know whether she worshiped the devil. She was shocked, but pointed out that a bit of respect didn't cost anything and might help her one day. The priest wasn't amused, but Cair had been. And now he faced the same. If he was a good enough 'balewerker' he'd get respect. If not... the beating of a few days ago might be a minor one.

    "I have some small powers, yes." He went on rubbing the amber thoughtfully.

    "Hah. Show us then," said the one with the scarred face, and fine, wispy hair. The man's breath reeked of ale. It was early in the day for that sort of tippling, especially from a mere thrall. Odds were he'd been raiding the brew-house, and thence his courage.

    "It is never wise to waste power. You never know when you may need it," said Cair, in fair-to-battered Norse.

    Scarface snorted. "By Odin's ring, you're full of wind. I'll..."

    "But," said Cair calmly, "I will show you something." He chanted a few appropriate words in Latin -- after all, it was easier to use real words than mere garbage. He held up his piece of driftwood. The Amber eye winked in the August sunlight. "This is a thief-finder. The guilty one's evil will seek to come to the finder. See. If you are innocent nothing will happen."

    He began at the man's neck, chanting his Latin. And was rewarded by the sharp hiss of indrawn breath from the other thrall. "Stand," he snapped as the man sought to turn and bolt. "See," he said to the other thrall, as the beer-thief's hair began to rise. With a pig-like squeal the beer-thief turned and bolted, closely followed by his companion.

    Cair went back to the stable. He knew that at least one pair of eyes had been watching, and that the story would grow. It probably wouldn't resemble the truth in the remotest, but as long as they left him alone, he could see to getting himself out of here, and back his ports along the African seaboard of the Mediterranean.

    But in the stable something changed his plans, at least in the short term. King Vortenbras and some seven of his men came in. "Saddle up for us," Vortenbras bellowed. The huge man had a voice that made even the stones shiver. "Move, or I'll whip you myself."

    "And not many will survive that," snapped on of the others. "We've a runaway thrall to hunt."

    Cair worked as fast as he could. It still didn't keep him from a casual blow from one of the hearthmen for some imagined tardiness. Soon the bunch surged away laughing, following the dogs.

    Cair heard the story later. Third-hand, but still with the elements of truth. Promised the beating of a lifetime, a young thrall had fled in the night. When they found him gone, they'd hunted him with dogs. Somewhere out there they'd caught him. "Lars was clever. He ran in the water and they lost him. But King Vortenbras, he smelled him out. He led the dogs down the shoreline until they found the scent again. And they found him, and they tore him apart. Vortenbras himself ripped the man in half," said the wide-eyed teller.

    Well, that was exaggeration, of course. But doubtless the dogs had ripped him appart. Cair decided that fleeing on foot -- or even on a horse, would be foolishness. Let him loose at the coast with a small boat -- and he'd chance it. But from here... well, right now that was not a possibility. Trusted Thralls did accompany their masters. Some even had belt-knives. So Cair slipped into the role that primitive superstition had cast him into. He became an expert at the vague statement. If you predicted general ill-fortune, sooner or later something would oblige. It was a bizarre thing for a rational man to have to do.

    It did move him up the pecking order. And it made getting the very best for the Princesses elderly horses easier. He'd finally got to the bottom of that: Most of them had been her father's old horses. Vortenbras had taken the younger ones, but only Signy's intervention had saved the old ones from slaughter. He learned too, the secret sign that Signy was in her stable hide-out. There would always be two or three of the house-dogs around. Apparently, they had to be shut out of the royal hall before the Queen could have Signy beaten. But, it appeared that other than dogs and horses, the shabby little princess had no other friends in this house.

    By gradual degrees Cair became a backstairs magician and the master of cheap tricks. In a similar fashion, the Barbary Corsair found that somehow he'd moved from his original plan to use the Princess as a stepping stone, to being her loyalist.



    It was the old dog that finally did it.

    Signy came down late in the afternoon, after the other stable-thralls had gone, her hand on the old dog's neck. Cair was standing in a dark corner of the stable, next to feed-store, carefully loosening a rock, which would give him a hiding place for the things he needed to steal for his escape. Now he stood dead still. It was dark back here.

    Cair had noticed how, over the last week that this, her most faithful companion, had abruptly stopped coming down here with her. Now he could see it was only loyalty that had made it make the effort to walk. Something was plainly very wrong with the old dog. The beast shivered slightly as it leaned against her, pausing. Then she led it to an empty stall, and it lay down with a little whine.

    Cair could swear that he'd made no sound, but somehow the Princess knew that he was there. Princesses did not belong in stables. They did not wear old -- if once good -- garments. They did not walk around unaccompanied by anyone but their dogs. She used to sneak out in the predawn and ride alone too, Cair knew -- something she was almost certainly not supposed to do, by the care she took to have the tack back in place when the thralls came to work. A Princess wasn't even supposed to touch tack! She was, by any definition, odd -- a breaker of the rules of her society. And Princess Signy added to her oddness by an almost inhuman ability to know where people were. She called him.

    She was kneeling next to the dog, her face oddly white -- she was always a little too sun-browned for a noblewoman, and her eyes glittered strangely.

    "Will you hold her still? I can't miss and I don't want her to know what I intend to do," she said in a dead-flat voice.

    So Cair sat with the old bitch, gently stroking her. He had had an old grazehound back on Lesbos when was growing up who had been a bit like this old girl. She'd also followed him everywhere. He'd spoiled her, or so his brother had said.

    "It has to be done," she said in that same voice, lifting the ear to expose the ear-hole.

    Horrified and fascinated he watched as she drew the the knife from her sleeve and stabbed hard, pushing the blade in through the ear-hole.

    The old bitch never even whimpered.

    But Signy did. And then, as she pulled the knife out, tears were streaming down her face. "She couldn't swallow any more... a canker in her throat," she said hoarsely.

    The hand that didn't hold the knife stroked the white-flecked muzzle. "I grew up with her. I..." she choked and let the shaking hand on the dead dog's flank say it all. She bent over and kissed the dog's nose, ignoring the blood.

    "But couldn't someone else do this for you?" he asked. No noblewoman would do such a thing!

    She stared blindly at him, not seeing past the tears. "She gave me all of her love and loyalty. How could I give her anything less? How could I let someone else kill her. It had to be done as quickly and cleanly as possible? How could I not be with her?"

    He nodded. It was an attitude he simply had to respect. He sought for words of comfort, without any thought but to ease her distress, speaking not as a thrall to his noble mistress, but as one dog lover comforting another. "She is young now, free from pain, chasing down the deer in the eternal fields," he said quietly.

    "Are there dogs in Odin's host?" she asked obviously desperately seeking reassurance -- even from a thrall.

    That was a hard one. One he had debated and decided on long before, at the death of his own childhood hound. He gave her as honest an answer as possible. "Princess, I am not of your faith, but if a God cannot recognize and reward such love and loyalty, how can he be a God? If there are no dogs in heaven, let me rather go to wherever they are."

    He took the knife from her hand and cleaned it on one of his rags, and gave it back to her. Signy sniffed. "I don't know what do with her now," she said in a small voice. "She just hurt so. I had to do it."

    Cair touched her, awkwardly, on the shoulder. He hadn't lived here for this long without coming to realize that to do so held possibly fatal consequences. "I will deal with it, Princess. I will bury her down at the edge of the paddocks. The dogs all love that spot. Let her always be there."

    She nodded, blindly. Sniffed. Bent over and kissed the dog's grey head once more and stood up. "Thank you," she said guiding herself along the stalls with an outstretched hand, eyes obviously too blurred to see.

    Cair knew then that he was, against all the trammels of logic and common sense, her man. It fought with his rational desire to get out of here, and back to his ships and his palace in Algiers. Admittedly, the chances for escape hadn't been good, so far. But he knew, in his heart of hearts, that he could have contrived something soon. He stayed on, as the weeks became months, knowing that he was stupid to stay. He was unused to dealing with such feelings about anyone, and not sure how one did cope with them.

    To have acquired such a devoted slave seemed to have made no difference to Signy. He was not really sure she even noticed.

    By harvest, he had unofficially promoted himself to head of her household-servants. He was undisputed lord of all the yard servants. But the house-thralls, mostly women, were a different matter. Still, they would learn. The thought amused him. Cair Aidin, slave-thrall, faker of magics, lord of the backstairs. How the mighty had fallen!

    He had quite a neat repertory of tricks by then. If he could gain access to some more chemical substances he'd have a few more surprises ready. But it was amazing what you could get away with in a bad light, with a few threads of gray horsehair, if you had a gullible enough audience.

    One thing Cair found passing strange, and not a little unpleasant. He'd been a popular man among the damsels of Carthage and Algiers. Women had swooned at his feet. Naturally, he hadn't expected them all to swoon at his feet here. But they'd left him entire. He'd even wondered at first if he was supposed to service the Princess. You heard stories. Well, perhaps beautiful Amazons enslaving men for certain explicit purposes was always a daydream of scruffy sailors that no women would look at twice, without their price in hand. But he'd never thought of himself in that category. Here -- although as a balewerker he had increasing cachet, although it also lent fear -- women regarded him as odd looking and a little undersized. Even Thjalfi got more attention than he did. Humph. If he'd thought about it, he'd have been less keen on making the moonling-midden wash. And as for Princess Signy -- well, he was pretty sure he was regarded as yet another one of her horses. She treated him like one of them, these days. And unless you were very odd indeed, you did not consider a horse as a mate. He was a thrall. And she was a Princess of the royal house. He was pretty sure that she was unaware that Cair was actually a man. He was just a thrall. A slave.

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