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A Mankind Witch: Chapter Seven

       Last updated: Friday, April 29, 2005 22:03 EDT



Kingshall, Telemark

    The gables of the Odinshof was held up by two massive, ancient and deeply carved wooden pillars. Outside the grove, the ancient sacred Vé circle-grove still stood, the oaks marking the weard of the temple. Every midsummer and again at midwinter the high priest would don Draupnir, the dripper, the heavy, inscribed golden arm-ring, and walk the bounds of the Vé, walking widdershins around the circle within the circle, chanting the galdr, calling the blessing of the one-eyed wanderer down on the kingdom. The sacrifice would be made, and the needfire kindled. Oaths would be sworn and renewed.

    It was said that while the circle of wood, stone, and gold remained unbroken, so too would the kingdom remain whole.

    The screaming carried much further than the bounds. It carried all the way to the royal hall. Signy bit her lip, knowing that it could not continue much longer. The blood-eagle rite was both terrible and painful. But the victim -- with his lungs pulled out of his rib-cage, spread into eagle-wings on his back, and the wounds salted, usually died quickly. The Jarl had been both a Vestfolder and an enemy, and, it was reputed, a Christian. He was therefore an appropriate sacrifice. It was a rite that Vortenbras was fond of. He would sever the ribs and pull the lungs out himself. Today three of them would die. One at dawn, one at midday and one at nightfall.

    If possible Signy would ride out. As far out as possible. Hawking, officially, to provide some game for the feasting tonight. Hawking was an activity the Dowager queen-mother had declared noble and ladylike, so Signy often got away with this. The queen fussed about hats and gloves, declaring nothing so injurious to the feminine complexion as the sun. Albruna avoided it. Signy usually managed to forget either her hat or her gloves, or both.

    Today, unfortunately, the Queen had been less obliging. When she had to come through to Signy's chambers, with three of the coastal Jarl's wives in tow, she'd found her stepdaughter already dressed in her riding habit. "No, my dear," the queen had said, with that false sweetness that she sometimes used in front of strangers when addressing her step-daughter, "Today I need you to join me at the temple."

    Signy knew that it was futile to try to resist the honey-sweet pressure that her stepmother could bring to bear. Still, she tried. "It makes me feel sick, Queen mother." She wrung her hands, and looked pleadingly up at Albruna.

    The Queen-Mother always looked like the perfect Mother-figure, with her apple red cheeks, gentle smile, blue-green eyes, thick braided blond hair and ample bosom to clasp her children to. A part of Signy always hoped that she really would be like that.

    "We must show a proper respect, Princess Signy," said Albruna, with just a touch of rigidity in her voice.

    Signy had come to dread that rigidity. She bowed her head meekly and said, "Yes, Queen-mama".

    The queen mother liked to be thus addressed, at least publicly, and gave her a thin smile. "So, change out of that disreputable garment and come down to my chambers. We ladies will all proceed to the temple together."

    Signy noticed that one of the women accompanying Queen Albruna was looking distinctly green herself. Rumor had it that several of the coastal Jarls had become Christians in secret. Her father would never have tolerated it, but Vortenbras didn't seem to care. He was keen on the observance of blood-rites, which had largely fallen into disuse during her father's rule. But he didn't swear by the Wanderer the way most of the Nobility did. It was odd. But then, you didn't question her half-brother Vortenbras. Even as a growing and brutal boy he'd always had the strength of two men. Now that he was full-grown, Signy had to admit that he was the image of a true Viking lord. Father had always been proud of his size and strength. Of course, as a girl-child she'd been barely noticed, except when shooting or riding. Then King Olaf had been happy to acknowledge her as his daughter, even if she was a poor scrap of girl. She could ride, really ride, which Vortenbras could not. He always looked like a sack of meal on a horse. And he would turn the most placid mare into a restive thing. Signy had always desperately wished that she could change herself into a boy, and one with Vortenbras's thews. If the Queen Mother had had her way, the Princess would only have ridden when strictly supervised, on the kind of horses Albruna preferred: one step above a fat donkey. But King Olaf had given into the queen on everything but this. "She's my daughter, dear. She has the right to ride anything that she can, in my stables." If he'd said it once, he'd said it a hundred times. And she could still remember how he'd always gone on, with characteristic baying laugh. "And that means every horse I have. They follow the little thing around like dogs." So she still got to ride, to hawk and to shoot. It had become taken for granted that she would, and although Albruna had done her best to restrict it since the King's death, Signy still did. On horseback was the one time and place she did not feel useless.

    But today, in an ill-fitting green dress of heavy brocade that she needed a thrall to get herself laced and buttoned into, she would sit through the chanting and drinking of blood-oaths, and desperately wish herself elsewhere.



    There was a polite knock on the door. Only the thrall Cair ever knocked like that. The other servants tended to be through the door by the time they'd finished knocking. Mind you, he was making headway there too. At least they knocked now. She had decided it was probably best not to ask too closely about what her newest slave was doing to the lackwits, slackers and her step-mother's spies who had been given to her as servitors. He was something of an enigma, this thrall.

    Cair bowed, polite as always. "I have brought something for you, Princess." He took a neat cloth package out of his ragged pouch.

    That pouch amused Signy. He was her thrall, and she'd given him permission to carry it. It was as grubby and ragged as any item a thrall might own. Yet she'd caught a glimpse of gold in it. And that certainly wasn't all it held. Signy had decided that the man was a magpie. He had anything from bird's eggs to bundles of old cloth containing Gods alone knew what. He didn't need the pretense of a ragged pouch to keep the thralls fingers from exploring it while he slept. They were all terrified of him, and especially that pouch. The house-thralls avoided him, pulling their skirts aside when he walked past, but he'd made her part of the stables shine. If he was a seid-witch, the more power to him. Cair was possibly the only person that Signy felt she didn't have to watch her tongue with. Since the snake incident, he'd had a few more whippings at Albruna's order. The Queen always found some pretext, but basically it was because the queen did not approve of even a mere thrall treating Signy with deference. It hadn't appeared to worry him. Or change the way that he behaved.

    Signy knew that the raid which had brought him here had been an utter failure, bringing back a bare handful of slaves. It had been in breach of the truce oath too: A shameful thing, even if Vortenbras claimed otherwise. So what if the Emperor was a Christian? An oath sworn on Odin's ring might not bind the Christian, but it ought to bind both Vortenbras and Telemark. But then Vortenbras had territorial ambitions and wasn't about to let an oath stop him. Some successful Viking was needed to get a following. A great raid would have drawn every second son, every malcontent and troublemaker from across the the thirteen kingdoms, and Sweden and Denmark too, to Vortenbras's standard.

    It had failed.

    So, now the King was displaying piety instead.

    Signy took the parcel from the thrall Vortenbras had rejected as too old, too sick and unable to speak a civilized language. The more fool her half-brother. The man had learned Norse with the speed and eagerness of a salmon that wanted to spawn. His accent was a little odd, but he was fluent. And, she had to admit, he was as clever as a fox to boot.

    She looked at the little bundle with a raised eyebrow. This new thrall was one of the few (if not the only) person, besides the dogs and horses to whom she could cheerfully say what she liked to. "What's this, Cair? A potion to make me vomit on the Queen? She'll have me whipped again."

    Cair smiled crookedly. "But wouldn't it be worth the whipping, Princess? No. It is just some clean beeswax."

    She looked quizzically at him. "To chew. Or to make candles from during the rites?"

    He shook his head. "There is a story of a Greek hero who saved his ship from sirens -- beautiful singers that lure sailors to their doom, Princess, by getting his crew to plug their ears with beeswax. The sounds distresses you. With your hair braided as it is over your ears, no one will ever know. Even the queen will not notice."

    "If she talks to me she will."

    The slave-thrall shrugged. "She doesn't talk to you, Princess. She talks at you. Just nod and say "yes". She'll never know the difference."

    Signy had to smile. This thrall did that to her. He was nearly as good as a dog at it. He didn't seem to know his place, or care that he was of a lower order -- but he treated her as if she deserved great respect. She'd have thought that as a outlander he was confused about her status, except -- well, he certainly wasn't stupid. "The Queen would have you whipped for that, Cair."

    He tapped his forehead. "A good thing that I made sure that she wasn't listening, Princess. She is down in main hall. She's got long ears," He waggled his hands beside his head of odd, curly black hair, "but not that long," he said, stretching his arms up and waggling his hands at full stretch.

    Signy found her smile had grown to a laugh. "Yes, but she has her spies. You'd better get away from here before Borgny comes to help me with my dress."

    Cair assumed a look of deep sadness. "Borgny is very unwell. Little Gudrun is on her way up to assist you."

    Borgny was one of the Queen's pets, and one of Signy's worst tormentors. Little Gudrun was too timid to torment anyone. She was nearly as small as Signy. The Princess looked suspiciously at the thrall. He smiled enigmatically.

    Signy shook her head. "The queen will surely get rid of you," she said, quietly. "She always does. But, if, as I have been led to expect, my marriage to that pig Hjorda of Rogaland is to come in the spring, I'm determined to take you along. You're too good a thrall to deserve less. I'll need at least one thrall for my prye." She smiled at him. "And that would give you entry to Odin's halls, which no thrall can expect, otherwise."

    He seemed a bit taken aback. But that was not really surprising. It was quite a privilege, normally only accorded to the servant of a lifetime.

    Later, she sat with the royal household as the priest walked around Odinshof, flicking blood from the altar-bowl with his hlauttein twig of mistletoe. The broad gold arm ring seemed almost too heavy for the old man. Well, it was said to be a harsh duty to have to wear the Draupnir. It rested normally on the huge altar-block, and was only taken up for the swearing of oaths and other stern duties like this.

    And the beeswax seemed to have worked. This time it was her stepmother who looked a little sick, and pale. Signy hoped desperately that her stepmother would go off to her estates near the border to recover. Kingshall was always easier to survive when she was away.

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