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A Mankind Witch: Chapter Four

       Last updated: Monday, April 18, 2005 18:13 EDT



Telemark, Kingshall

    Cair was sweeping. Yard sweeping was normally a thrall's way of passing time 'constructively' engaged so that he would not be sent to do something which required more energy. Cair regarded it as a necessary evil to be completed as quickly as possible. He'd found that in his case, few people would come looking for him in his makeshift 'workshop' in the smelly shed behind the hide store. He had several other matters he wished to attend to, today. He had been gathering some old hooves and broken horn pieces, and he wanted to make some spirits of hartshorn. Hartshorn was known and used to revive ladies who felt faint. Cair also knew that there were other, less savory possibilities for the substance. Apparently a similar substance had once been distilled from camel dung in the temple of Jupiter Ammon, in Libya.

    Queen Albruna came walking across the yard area, with Signy a few steps behind her. As usual, when in the presence of her step-mother, the princess's shoulders were hunched, and her eyes were downcast. As usual too, although there were several ladies and serving women accompanying the Queen, it was Signy who was carrying the fine porcelain bowl full of rose hips. The bowl was none of the coarse local work or even stoneware from the Empire. By the looks of it, it came from far further east. The Queen was apparently on her way to make rose-hip cordial. Working with food would have been considered beneath most noblewomen, but medicines were different. Albruna was talking loudly and cheerfully. Cair stepped respectfully aside. The queen was not someone that anyone would dare to annoy.

    Signy stumbled. She caught her toe on a cobble, and merely spilled two or three of the rose hips. The queen rounded on her. "You clumsy girl! Can't you do anything right? You nearly dropped my bowl! I told you how precious it was."

    Cair saw how Signy cringed. And the queen turned on him "You. Thrall. Take the bowl from her. Even a dirty stable-thrall can do the job better than you, Signy."

    So Cair dropped his birch-twig broom and ran to take the bowl. Carefully.

    It was blue and white, patterned with dragons, but not in the usual serpent-like Norse tradition. He carried it as if it were made of thinnest Venetian blown glass -- and indeed that would have been cheaper. Something this fragile, that had traveled this far was rare indeed. He carried it across to the still-room -- where such medicines as the Norse had, were made. Bundles of herbs hung from the roof, drying. The shelves had various bottles on them. Cair peered curiously -- he'd never been allowed in here. Unfortunately, all the labeling was in Futhark. He set the bowl down with care, his eyes taking in details. Cair had become an adept thief since he found himself here. Most of the things he stole, true, were ill-guarded. They were not things that any thrall might want. This place -- other than some of the glassware -- and that was poor stuff too, had little to tempt him.

    The women had all crowded into the small room. The queen was famed for her simples, and they'd come to watch. Cair found that his way out was blocked by several Norse matrons who would have made fine pier-bollards or bulwarks against any Atlantic storm. Short of pushing through them -- he was trapped in this corner. The only clear space was around Signy, and of course the Queen.

    The queen handed her stepdaughter a glass beaker with finely chopped herbs in it. "Signy, pour the walnut oil in there -- up to the first mark on the glass. Now, obviously the magical healing essence..."

    Cair watched the Princess hold the beaker out at full arm-stretch and squint at it, and then pour carefully. Still peering intently.

    The queen exhaled angrily, breath hissing between her square teeth. "You foolish girl! That's far too much oil! And now both the oil and the herbs are spoiled! You infuriate me! Can't you do anything right? I do my duty by you, trying to teach you what a princess of the blood should know. And do you even try?" She tore into Signy, who just stood there, biting her lower lip, her face white, bowed beneath the onslaught. Was this the same young woman who fearlessly mounted warhorses in the stable, and who would kill an old dog, herself, to give it the best surcease from pain that she could?

    Cair decided that it was time to intervene. Quietly -- and the women were all watching Signy being shredded, so none would notice, he pulled the adder from his ragged pouch and dropped it to floor, just to the Signy-side of the plump apple-cheeked matrons. It lay there, the malevolent-looking black zig-zags patterning down the dorsal side making even the dead thing look dangerous. One of the other thralls had killed it this morning out in the fields, where they'd been set to moving stones to ready the land for the plow. One of the others had brought it to him. They all brought him the oddest 'gifts' - from misshapen roots to odd mushrooms. Sometimes even he was at a loss as to what to do with them. The snake-hide he'd thought he would make into a bracelet. Perhaps he might milk out the venom -- that might prove useful too, he'd thought. Well, this was a better use -- there was venom enough here. He pushed forward and groveled at the Queen's feet -- contriving to stand on the snake's head in the process. "Please Mistress queen," he quavered in his very worst Norse. "Is snake. Not princess. I kill. Crush head." He pointed -- creating shrieks and retreat. "I bump Princess Signy. My wrong, Queen. Not she."

    The Queen stared at the snake. Then at Signy, and then at Cair. Then at the snake again. Cair had a sinking feeling that she at least wasn't fooled about how alive it had been a few moments back. But she was the only one in the room who hadn't been taken in, by the sounds of alarm.

    "What a brave thrall," said one of the women, looking in horror at the snake.

    The queen schooled her face into the semblance of a smile. "Get up and take it away, thrall. What are you doing in here, anyway?"

    "I carry bowl," said Cair, humbly.

    Signy spoke up for him. "He doesn't speak very good Norse, Queen Mamma. And I don't think he did bump me. He's a good hard worker. He just doesn't understand well."

    Cair created a distraction by picking the snake up, and flicking it with his thumb so that the tail waggled about. Rigor had set in but he doubted that many of his audience would notice. The women shrieked obligingly. "I take and throw. Sorry I bump she," he said making his way through a miraculously clear space to the door.

    He escaped with the adder, and went off to throw it away, much amused. The queen might be suspicious, but what could she do?

    He found out later. One of the burly guards came down to the stable with a whip. And grabbed Cair by the arm. He pointed with the whip at four of the other thralls. "You. Take his other arm. And you two his legs. If I get kicked, you'll get beaten too. Pull that tunic up."

    The guard laid into him with the whip. A slave can be punished at whim. Cair should have remembered that.

    "Stop. Why are you beating my thrall?" Signy demanded.

    "Queen Albruna told me to, Signy," he didn't even address her as Princess -- rank disrespect. And he laid on another stroke.

    "He's my thrall. I'll say if he must be beaten."

    He swung the whip down. "I take my orders from Vortenbras or the Queen. Not you. He's to get twenty strokes. Go to the Queen if you like." The guard seemed to find that very funny.

    Signy stared at him in helpless fury. And he raised the whip again. She grabbed a bucket-yoke from against the wall, and swung it at him.

    He attempted to dodge, but that had two unexpected consequences. The first was that he pulled in against Cair -- who bit, hard, into the flesh just above his knee. And thus the return swing of the yoke caught him on the side of the head, instead of his whip arm.

    It was a good solid oak yoke, intend to allow a man to carry two buckets of water. It hit the man with an audible crack too. Signy was small, but not weak. The guard let go of Cair. The thralls already had.



    Cair pulled down his tunic, and weighed the options. If this Norse bear of a man attacked Signy... well -- he needed some weapon. But his tongue was always his best form of sword. "It would be hard for the king not have the head of any man who put a hand on his sister -- even in front of thralls," he said, clearly.

    The man growled, feeling the side of his head. And Cair realized that he was not quite alone in his fight. The dogs that had inevitably followed Signy around growled straight back at the guard.

    "Any minute now and they'll start barking," said Cair, calmly. "Then the whole pack of them will be here. They'll tear you apart."

    The hulking guard looked at Cair, obviously not knowing quite how to deal with Signy. "Thrall. I've been sent to beat you. I'll go and fetch some of the others and finish the job properly."

    Cair shrugged. It hurt like hell. "Enjoy explaining to them that a woman bested you. I'm sure that will make them all respect you."

    "You've beaten him," Signy's voice shook slightly. But she stood her ground and held onto the yoke. "Your mistress is not going to count the strokes. Now, go before I whistle. That will indeed bring half the dogs in the hall here."

    The guard straightened up. "Just you wait, thrall."

    "Oh I will," said Cair, with a confidence he was far from feeling. "But I won't have long to wait. Ill fortune is right behind you. You are a doomed man. I read it in your future."

    The guard snorted. "Insolent thrall. How dare..."

    "I mean no disrespect. I do but see what I see," said Cair, loftily.

    The guard snorted again, and stalked out.

    Cair smiled. It cost him no small effort to do so.

    "Back to your work," said Signy to the open-mouthed thralls standing staring.

    The others hastened away. "It might have been better just to let him finish beating me, Princess," said Cair, quietly.

    "Probably," said Signy with a grimace. "He will come back, thrall, with his companions. And Vortenbras won't listen to me."

    Cair bowed. It hurt. "I will deal with it, Princess. He just caught me by surprise."

    She looked more worried rather than eased. "You shouldn't have done that trick with the snake, thrall."

    Cair attempted not to smile. "But it was a very good one, Princess. The ladies screamed so well."

    For the first time ever, Cair saw Signy smile back at him. He decided that a beating had been a small price. She shook her head, almost unbelievingly. "You are very impudent, thrall. But you will get badly hurt."

    "I'll do my best not to, Princess. Could you tell the stable-master to tell all of us to move the dung heap to the far paddocks tomorrow? Later? Please, my Lady?"

    She bit her lip. Looked suspiciously at him. Then nodded. "Later."

    It was an unpleasant extra job that would take many hours. Cair winced at the thought. And he'd have a sore back for it too. In the meanwhile he had a lot of preparation to do. If he knew human nature at all, either the guard would be back just as soon as he was sure that the coast was clear, or he would come in the morning after he'd done some brooding. Cair thought it would be it wise to disappear for now. Signy's ceiling hide-out would do nicely. He took someone specific's saddle along for company and began to quietly cut stitches with a sharp little fragment of iron he'd made with patient rubbing on some stone. The other part of what he did, he knew that the princess would disapprove of. But the horse would recover.

    When evening drew on he slipped out of his sleeping area. Nobody -- by now -- would dream of mentioning the fact to anyone in authority. He left his carefully caraway scented bedding and took a long, cold, obstacle filled walk -- dragging a small sack of caraway behind him. He then walked back to the stable. Cair dared not sleep, but instead sat, thinking. Before cock-crow he made himself busy with mucking out. The horses did not approve of the change in pattern, but by the time the thralls were straggling across the garth to the kitchen for their morning rations he'd moved himself off to the dung heap, and had begun loading up the cart.

    Presently, the yelling told him that the hue and cry had started. He smiled and went on loading dung. If anyone had actually looked around the back of the stables they'd have seen him there. Soon he heard the dogs, baying, giving out that they had the scent. Cair went on loading. He had the better part of a cart-load of dung done, before the other thralls, still talking in excited little knots, came around the corner.

    They stood there gawping. "But... you've run away," said Thjalfi.

    Cair shook his head at them. "Run away? I have not. Who would have mucked out for me if I was not here? I couldn't sleep for the pain from lashes. So I came to work early. I've done a great amount of work while you've all lain on your pallets." He pointed at the manure. "See."

    The thralls did. He got the feeling that a good few them wanted to come and touch the manure in the cart just to make sure that it, and he, were real. "But.... they're out there hunting you," protested one of the thralls who worked in Vortenbras's section.

    Cair shrugged. "I can't help that." He noticed that one of the hindmost thralls had sneaked off, doubtless to tell someone. "Come on. Let's get the job done, before it gets too warm and flies drive us all mad."

    Thus it was that when the stable-master came running around the corner. Cair was once again just a thrall, loading muck. "You," The stable-master called him out. "What are you doing here?" Cair looked puzzled. "Shoveling horse-manure, master," he said humbly. His clothes and hands bore ample testimony to this. He was willing to bet his bouquet did too. Most unlike caraway, it would be. "Ask the others. I had done nearly a cart-load by myself. It's what I was told to do. Do you want me to do something else?"

    The steward plainly found this a bit too much for his small mind. "But you were missing. You've run away."

    Cair contrived to look shocked. "Oh no, Master. I'm a good slave. I just started work early. My back was sore and I could not sleep, master."

    "He does things like that, Svein," said Signy, who had come on the scene, quietly. "I think he's mad. But he's done his horses, and by the looks of it done a lot of the work I told you to get them to do."

    The stable-master swallowed as if his mouth was suddenly too dry. "But the dogs followed him. He has run away."

    "He didn't run very far by, the looks of it," said Signy, coolly. "I wish the rest of them would run to the dung heap as eagerly."

    "But... but... I set the King's men to hunt him..."

    Signy raised her eyebrows, tilted her head. "Well, whatever they're hunting, it's not him. You'd better saddle up, so that you can go after them and tell them they've been sent on a fool's errand. If you wait until they've wasted half a day on it they'll be furious."

    "They're going to be furious anyway," muttered the man. But he left in haste.

    Cair settled into the work. Never had shifting horse dung -- even with a sore back, seemed so sweet. And he collected quite a bit of saltpeter in the process. It quite made up for being under slept and very hungry.

    Later, the news trickled down. One of Vortenbras's guards had had an unfortunate accident that morning. His cinch had broken mid-jump, and he had tumbled him head-first into the broken logs and briars. The man had been brought back to the hall on a hurdle, with a cracked head and a broken arm. And his horse had kicked one of the others. That rider had also taken a bad fall.

    Cair looked sorrowful. "I did warn him," he said. He'd take things very carefully for a while. But the seeds of rumor were planted. And well watered.

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