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A Mankind Witch: Chapter Three

       Last updated: Wednesday, April 13, 2005 18:31 EDT



Sweden, Skåne, 1538

    Prince Manfred of Brittany stared out at the steel gray sky. His ox-like frame blocked nearly all of the weak sunlight from the narrow window. Still, the sunlight wasn't making it any warmer inside the chapter-house. The place was at least relatively warm and dry, even without sunlight. There wasn't much else you could say for it. Still -- the bleak view outside was scarcely more inspiring than the Spartan interior of this place.

    He turned back to face his companion, who was busy having his armor straps adjusted. Both men wore the cross-embossed steel of the Knights of the Holy Trinity, the militant monastic arm of the holy Roman Empire. Manfred wore armor with the appearance of negligence. A man his size was designed to carry forty pounds of steel plate on his chest. "I suppose it would be as futile to suggest that we should just stay here, warm and full of wine, as it would be to suggest we go back to Francesca in Copenhagen?"

    Erik shrugged. "I look forward to your explanation to the Emperor Charles Fredrik. He did expect you to sort out this mess, personally. But I'm sure he'll quite understand that you didn't want to get cold." He felt that he was getting better at handling Manfred. A couple of years of being the Prince's bodyguard and mentor had given him enough practice. And being back in full armor made the Icelander irascible. So did the plains of Skåne. Flatness brought out the worst in him, he decided.

    Manfred grinned. "I'd let you tell uncle. You two would have such a good time complaining about the youth of today, you'd soon forget to be mad at me. It's cold out there."

    Erik checked the Algonquin war hatchet he insisted on carrying as well as the standard broadsword. It was the best copy he'd been able to get the imperial swordsmith at Mainz to make of the weapon he'd destroyed on the Woden, outside Venice. It wasn't as good, but short of venturing to Vinland again, it would just have to do. He shrugged again. "The Palace at Mainz is just about as cold. And he'd keep you there. Last I heard he had planned to fill the place with Dowagers and to move every drop of liquor out of the place, next time you were there. You were begging to get away a month ago, even without that."

    Manfred acknowledged the hit. "I was hoping to get sent to Aquitaine. Or back to Venice. Not to the frozen north," he said wryly. "And I thought I could keep Francesca with me."

    "We go to where the Empire has problems," said Erik, dryly. "Not to where we've already fixed them. The Emperor said that Francesca should stay in Copenhagen, and you should come and sort out the problems here from the other side. Besides, the cold is good for you. Gets the blood moving around the body."

    Manfred grunted. "I've got more body to move it around. And I didn't like the old lecher saying Francesca would operate better without me around."

    A tall grey-haired knight limped stiffly into the room. "We are ready to proceed, Prince. We don't keep our horses standing in the cold." Von Tiblaut did not bow. Officially, the Militant Holy order gave scant deference to worldly rank. And the Proctor-General of Skåne was making it very clear that as far as he was concerned these were just two Confrere Knights, serving a three year duty. The term 'Prince' was a backhanded insult. The fact that the Emperor had requested that they should be seconded here was barely acknowledged. So, it would appear, were specific instruction from the Abbot-General that Manfred's words should carry the Bishop's authority. Manfred had been told that the Order, here in Southern Sweden, behaved as if it was a law unto itself. He was seeing the proof of it.

    The Proctor-General obviously didn't realize that he'd come to change that.

    Manfred did nothing to clarify this either. He said nothing, just docilely walked out into the the courtyard. Erik, who knew his charge well, braced himself for trouble.

    Von Tiblaut hadn't yet got the measure of the Prince of Brittany. Perhaps, as others had in the past, he mistook Manfred's stolidity, for ox-like stupidity. "Don't keep us waiting in future," he said irritably. "You too, Hakkonsen. And I don't want to see that pagan weapon again. Is that clear, Knight? Put it in a saddlebag or dispose of it."

    "I have no pagan weapons," said Erik, his voice icy. "All my arms are wielded in the service of Christ, and the Godar Hohenstauffen." He turned to his mount, pointedly ignoring the order. No wonder there was trouble here between the Danes and the Order, with this stiff-necked, petty, self-important ass in charge.

    Von Tiblaut goggled at him. Obviously no one had disobeyed him for many years. But perhaps something about the way the Icelander had spoken, made him keep his peace, for now. However, his eyes were narrowed, thoughtful.

    He might have been even more thoughtful if he had realized that Mecklen, one of quiet knights sent to accompany the Prince, ranked as an Archimandrite Proctor, and that three of the other ten were senior proctors, from Bohemia. They were traveling as mere ordinary knights, and to all appearances were a bodyguard for the nephew of the Holy Roman Emperor. On the ship from Copenhagen, Mecklen had explained matters to the Prince. "While they concentrate on you, Ritter, they won't watch me. And the Bishops of the order are also concerned about what happened in Venice and what appears to be happening in Sweden. They'd like matters seen to, firstly, because this threatens the order, and secondly, because the current situation seems to have aroused the wrath of the Emperor. We don't need any more of that sort of trouble."

    "I am authorized to act with both the Abbot-General's and the Emperor's authority," Manfred had said, in a deceptively mild tone.

    Mecklen had not been deceived. Nor had been angered. "Indeed, and I am here to lend force to your actions within the Order, and if need be in the service of the Emperor. Unless we are needed, we shall simply be your personal guard, assigned by the Abbot-General. But we are here to report back to him."

    They rode onward into the hinterland, towards the rising forested hills of the Småland borderlands. In the distance you could see that the dryer ridge-lines were spiky with pine, with the wetter valley land covered, by the color of it, with spruce. Looking around, Erik could see that the country here had once been thickly forested too. Some of the fields were returning to scrubby birch and aspen patches. Still, the potential for an ambush of a heavily armored mounted column was limited here, on the largely open flatlands. True danger would start along with real afforestation. Without allowing his vigilance to drop Erik gave more attention to the fields. He looked at the straggly remnants of a strip of pease. Compared to the stark, steep, unfertile beauty of his native Bokkefloi in Iceland, this land was a farmer's dream. But there was no mistaking that there was poverty in the wooden peasant huts. Something was wrong here. The farms closer to the coast had been far richer.

    Manfred had plainly noticed too. "Are these Danish lands?" he asked.

    One of the Knights shook his head. "No. These are the lands of Ritter Von Stelheim. He was a confrere Knight in the Chapter House at Lödöse. He bought the lands from the Order when he had finished his time."

    Manfred's heavy eyebrows lifted fractionally. "They're in poor heart for a place that is potentially so rich."

    "These Götar make useless serfs," said the Knight, scathingly. "You have to beat one to death for every one you can get to work. And half of them run off over the border."

    Erik made no comment to this sally, except to raise his eyebrows slightly.

    The Breton Prince shrugged as if it meant nothing to him. Indeed, it was only because Erik knew Manfred well that he could spot the tightening around his mouth. Erik kept his own tongue between his teeth... with difficulty. Things were very different in Celtic Brittany or in his own Iceland. Even in Swabia, the heart of Holy Roman Empire, beating a serf to death would have had consequences. But the Knights drew the bulk of their numbers from the Eastern frontier. Such conduct was not uncommon there, but there the differences east or west of the border were slight. If anything, you were worse off as a peasant in King Emeric's Hungary, than in either the Empire or the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

    A little later Manfred asked casually: "And the lands nearer the coast. Don't they have the same problem with their peasants?"

    "They did. But mostly it is Danish settlers there now."

    "Ah," said Manfred and they rode on in silence.



    Erik knew the explosion was merely being delayed. That night they were once again ensconced in a wooden fortress-chapter-house, on the edge of the Småland hills. As soon as they were in the privacy of their assigned chamber, Manfred allowed himself to erupt. "Stupid Goddamned Prussians! They're running a private little land grab here, and turning this frontier into a war-zone. No wonder the Danes are furious with them."

    Erik shook his head, "It's not just a problem of the Prussians. After all, we served with a couple of good ones in Italy. Men like Falkenberg. It's a rot in the Knights of the Holy Trinity. The Knights are supposed to be an arm of the church. To help the spread of the word of Christ. To defend the people of the Holy Roman Empire against the Pagan. Here they have become oppressors. They have become a force which drives people away from the church. If the rumor is true -- a force motivated by monies paid to the order for seized lands."

    "And Charles Fredrik has given me this mess to sort out," said Manfred sourly. "Maybe staying in Mainz would not have been so bad after all."

    Erik stood up. "Come. Bring your quilted jacket and the rapier. Let's go and put in some practice in the lower hall."

    "I've spent the whole day in the saddle and the mad Icelander wants to go and fence..." said Manfred grumbling on principle, digging in his saddlebag.

    Erik shook his head. "I don't. Or at least that is not my first purpose. You're going to need to sort the wheat from the chaff here. Let's see whose minds are not too set in stone to try a bout or two with a rapier instead of a broadsword."

    "Ah." Manfred nodded, taking the round-edged and buttoned blade from his gear. "Well. Get your winnow then. Let's go and bruise some wheat."

    Within the bounds of the Holy Roman Empire, in the Italian states, Aquitaine and the Celtic League of Armagh, gunpowder weapons were becoming increasingly commonplace, and the heavy plate-armor was far less used. The rapier had largely superseded the broadsword, and the style of warfare too was changing. But in the pagan northlands, and on the Eastern Frontier, times had not yet moved onwards. Steel plate, spiky and angular to deflect pagan magics, the broadsword and the lance, the mounted knight and the massed charge were still effective against the the undisciplined waves of largely unarmored and unmounted barbarians with throwing axes and greatswords. At least... on the flatlands.

    In the lower hall a number of knights were working at pells and a Knight-Proctor was drilling an unfortunate group of squires. There was a sudden drop in the clangor when two unarmored knights entered the hall. Then, with ostentatious effort, the drill noises resumed as Manfred and Erik went through a series of stretches and then lunges.

    "Why do you bring these little willow wands here? Have you not the thews to wield a true knight's weapon?" sneered one of knights at last, taking a break from hewing a defenseless hardwood pell into kindling.

    Manfred looked at Erik and raised an eyebrow. Erik nodded almost imperceptibly. This one would do. He was older than most of those here, and obviously a pack-leader. Erik had noticed him conferring with Von Tiblaut earlier. "I don't suppose," asked Manfred in a diffident tone, "That the good Ritter would care to try a bout?"

    The heavy-browed knight snorted. "Me? Von Mell prance around like some ponce of a southern dancing master? No thank you. Why don't you try a man's weapon instead?" He held up his broadsword.

    "Why," said Manfred easily. "I believe I would like to." He stepped over to the Ritter, and examined the sword with all the appearance of interest. "Which is supposed to be sharp end, Ritter?" Smothered snorts and chuckles competed with the all but stilled noises of training.

    The heavy brows lowered further. "You are trying to mock me."

    Manfred clapped an arm across the man's shoulder. The fact that his hand happened to rest on the Knight's neck was purely incidental. "Not I." he said sanctimoniously. "Did I say anything about dancing masters? Come. Let me try this weapon." And he took it from fingers rendered suddenly nerveless, because of the extreme pressure on a point in the Ritter's neck.

    Manfred felt the sword's balance, weighing it in his ham-like hands. Erik watched with some amusement. Manfred and the broadsword were a natural paring. He had the build and the wrists for it. And he'd been training with one for longer, and with better masters than any border-Ritter would have. Manfred turned on the pell.

    "Dia Coir!" he thundered. It was a textbook-stroke, on the turn with a full bodyweight follow-through, perfect to the detail of exhalation and the war-cry's force coinciding with the strike. The top of the pell leaped and bounced across the floor. Manfred stood calmly inspecting the blade. He handed it back to the open-mouthed knight. "See that you get a proper edge onto this thing. It'd do as a butter-knife right now."

    Embarrassment had turned the heavy-browed knight's face to a shade of beetroot. Now the blood drained away. He was white with fury. Erik tapped him on the shoulder with the rapier. "Let us see how your butter-knife can do against my willow-wand."

    "Are you mad?" demanded the Knight, thrusting his blue jaw at the lean-limbed Icelander. Manfred's display of might had made him wary about that newcomer, but this foreigner looked easier meat. He was less bulky, if a little taller.

    "I promise I won't hurt you," said Erik reassuringly.

    "I meant that my sword is neither rounded nor buttoned," said the Ritter through clenched teeth. "And unlike you, I am armored."

    "Ah. Well, I shall just have to keep out of the way of it then," said Erik, stepping back and assuming guard.

    Ritter Von Mell took a deep breath. "Let me show you what a true weapon can do. Once I've disarmed you I will give you a long overdue hiding with the flat." He stalked toward Erik.

    Erik moved aside easily from the blow intended to knock the relatively frail rapier spinning. The next blow was if anything harder, delivered with real anger. Twisting his blade from sixte into a croisé on the furious swing, Erik used Von Mell's momentum to angle the broadsword downwards to nick the floorboards. As it did this, the rapier flicked upwards to touch the Ritter's throat.

    "You are dead once. Do you wish to continue?" asked Erik, dispassionately.

    For an answer Von Mell wrenched his blade out of the floorboards and swung it at Erik's head. Erik sidestepped. For the next ten minutes he continued to dodge, use Von Mell's rage and strength against him, while the entire lower hall watched. Occasionally Erik proved that he could have killed Von Mell. Then, as the Ritter began to seriously tire -- he was, except for his helmet and boots, in full armor -- Erik began to apply a dreadful lesson, both in swordsmanship and respect. The armor might have saved Von Mell some bruises. It did nothing for his dignity, especially as he received swats across buttocks with the flat every hundred heartbeats or so. Erik Hakkonsen took training to the far edge of fanaticism and a little beyond. He was scarcely even breathing hard. His opponent was staggering, barely able to raise his sword tip. Von Mell was, of course, carrying many extra pounds of steel plate, and a heavier weapon. But he was also not in particularly good shape. Erik did not give him a second opportunity to call a halt.

    Eventually Manfred did. He did so by the simple method of taking Von Mell by the neck-piece and sitting him down, hard, in a clatter of steel. Then he twitched the Ritter's broadsword away from him. "Hasn't he sweated enough, Erik?"

    "There is still tallow to melt away from his ribs," said the Icelander critically, looking at the knight -- who had made no effort to get to his feet again. "However, I hope I have stripped some from between his ears. In future, Ritter, try thinking before you speak."

    "He taught me that lesson the hard way too," said Manfred with a guffaw. "Now," he said to the crowd -- as he handed the sitting knight his sword again. "Are you all going to watch us or do any of you care to try one of these..." he held up a rapier, "Willow-wands."

    There was a long silence. Then one of the knights -- the one who had been drilling the squires earlier, stepped forward. "I believe I would."

    He was broad-faced fellow with a square chin and a somewhat crooked nose. Unlike most of the blond Ritters, his hair was an indeterminate brown. There was something about the set of his chin that said that this one was no loud-mouth pushover. Von Mell had accompanied them from Lödöse. This was a Knight of the local chapter-house. Here was someone posted to a border chapter-house -- And he had been drilling squires -- never a popular task. Von Mell had stood close to the Proctor-General's confidence. This knight was from the opposite extreme. Erik regarded him carefully. He had potential.

    "Certainly, Ritter." Manfred said easily. "I'll give you hand getting out of that breastplate, if you like. The quilted jacket will save you from getting more than a bruising."

    The knight shook his head. "Perhaps tomorrow I will try that. What I would like to see is more of that work with the point. I noted that you, Ritter, used the point a great deal. Is it really effective against armored men?"

    Erik nodded. "When used with precision, yes. But you must remember that by in large it is not our foes who are heavily armored, and that firearms, aye, and even crossbow quarrels render armor an expensive, heavy ornament."

    There were faint gasps at what amounted to near sacrilege to the knights. But the broad-faced one acknowledged this with a serious nod. "But in mass-combat there is little time or place for precision. And our foes here mostly use throwing axes, spears, and greatswords." He felt the balance of the rapier Manfred had handed him.

    Erik liked the lad more and more by the minute. He'd often wondered whether the physical effort of carrying all that steel robbed the brain of needed nourishment. The knights were long on honor, generally long on piety, and a little short on mental flexibility. "True. Although there is always a place for precision, even with a battleaxe. But the foes of the Church we are sworn to defend... will not always be the foes you stand against now. This new weapon hones and broadens the skills of knight. Hold it thus. Posture is somewhat different too. See."

    They worked at it until the Vespers bell. And this knight showed no sign of exhaustion. He handed back the rapier. "Perhaps again tomorrow, Ritters," he said, hopefully. "Do you make a long stay here? Have you been stationed here?"

    So the run-of-the-mill knights of the local chapter-house knew nothing of who they were -- or why they had come. Well, even the Proctor-General of Skåne didn't know all of it, although he might well guess, as he had chosen to accompany them. "We're on a sort of tour," said Manfred easily. The locals would suspect that they were no ordinary knights anyway, by the very fact that the Proctor-General had ventured out into the cold.

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