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A Mankind Witch: Chapter Five

       Last updated: Wednesday, April 20, 2005 19:23 EDT



Kingshall, Telemark

    Jarl Svein, Hjorda's emissary, was back from Stavanger. Rumor had it that Hjorda's coffers were very full right now. A fleet from Vinland to Flanders had been intercepted, apparently. Doubtless reprisals would follow -- but for now Hjorda had gold to burn. Or at least to spend on a bride-price. And, if they'd paid it over to Telemark -- the vengeful fleet wouldn't recover it.

    Signy made her small, stiff bow to the sleek-looking man. He bowed extravagantly. And well he might. If King Hjorda had his way, she'd be his queen.

    For a day, at most -- but then he wouldn't know that. If she managed to do it right, that was. There were times when she doubted she'd even get that right.

    Signy drew some cold comfort from the knife in her sleeve. It was dedicated to Thor, not Odin. Most of the Aristocracy gave some worship there, although Odin was their lord, and the warriors and even the thralls gave more deference to Thor or Frey. The hammer-thrower was something of a direct god -- but he was an honorable one. Odin's repute was less savory in these matters. Her oath was sworn on his ring, and the hammer-inscriptions on the knife.

    "Princess," said the Jarl reverently. "I am delighted to make your acquaintance. You are everything I was led to believe."

    As I have heard you and my Stepmother talking about me, that is not a compliment, thought Signy. But she did not allow her face to betray her. "Indeed," she said, frostily.

    "Signy," said Queen Albruna, with a honey-dripping smile. "I have wonderful news for you. Your betrothal! Of course the formal announcement and the presentation of the bride-gifts will take place at the banquet tonight. Such joy for you, my dear! Although I will be sad to lose such a dutiful daughter..."

    "Think of it as gaining a son," said the Jarl, somehow managing to keep a straight face. Hjorda was older than the Queen.

    "Say how happy you are, Princess," said the Queen.

    "It is my duty to say so," said Signy, even though she knew that this would bring down Albruna's wrath, later, in private.

    The Jarl chose to ignore this snub, and to continue with more platitudes. He probably had practice. King Hjorda had sent three wives to the burial mound already. "It will a joyous occasion, joining two ancient great houses."

    Hjorda's line was oh... maybe a generation old. His father had been a forsworn murderer too. An ancient great house, indeed. Signy found herself unable to dig up a reply. Besides the lump in her throat was getting in the way of talking. How could Vortenbras agree to this? Queen Albruna wanted her out -- so long as she got as great an advantage as possible from her stepdaughter. But Vortenbras! He knew how much their father had hated Hjorda. How could he? But she was a Princess of the house royal. She knew where her duty lay. And she knew the sure course to honor too. She retreated to the corner of the room. Typically, her stepmother's chambers were always cold. She pulled her shawl tighter around her thin shoulders and waited for the next horror. It wasn't long in coming. One of the ladies in waiting drew attention to the tambour frame the queen had set down. The queen's embroidery was always exquisite. This piece, executed in gold and silk thread, particularly so. It was a an as yet uncompleted needle-picture of the death of Bynhild. The admiration in Jarl Svein's voice was genuine. "It's a work of art, Queen Albruna. What they call Nué, or 'shaded gold' work in the Empire. The princess is a notable needlewoman. She's been well taught."

    Albruna laughed musically. "I'm afraid not, Svein. That's my current piece. Poor Signy shows no talent for this sort of womanly art." Looking across the room Signy could see her own poor effort on a stool by the fireside, where she was sure that she'd not left it. From here she could see every crooked stitch. It was in coarse flax thread, but that was all she found she could work with.

    "Signy, do show us your piece. Or perhaps you could sing for us?"

    Signy wished desperately to be elsewhere.



    The knife came down in a vicious arc. Thrust deep into the softness.

    Signy lay there, sobbing, with the knife clutched so hard in her hand that the haft's wire-binding cut into her hands.

    She could kill a bolster. But could she kill a man? Even one as vile as her bridegroom?

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