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A Mankind Witch: Chapter Ten

       Last updated: Friday, May 6, 2005 20:08 EDT



    The morning brought a rider from Lödöse to the dining-hall. One who had come in the night, now, when nights were an ill time to be riding. Erik noted the new arrival in the dining hall when they had stopped to break their fast -- after a good two hours weapons drill.

    "Who's he?" asked Erik, as the Polish Ritter came to join them.

    Szpak looked. He raised his solid bar of eyebrow. "Nothing passes you by, Ritter. He came from Lödöse late last night, and sat closeted with the Abbot and the Proctor- General. He was once a Knight with the order. He has family interests in Copenhagen, I believe."

    Erik smiled wryly. "Noticing things is a bodyguard's job. My father started training me up for that when I was about five, Juzef. And I might say that nothing seems to pass you by, either."

    The Polish Proctor shrugged. "Secrets in a monastic order are few and far between, Erik."

    "He's got all the hallmarks of a bearer of news," said Erik, suspiciously. "There is something afoot, Manfred. Word out of Denmark about what you're actually here to do at a guess. I think we need to gather your escort. Now. They're not locals."

    Manfred looked at his half-finished platter."You're getting worse than Sachs at seeing evil under every cobble." He was never at his best before breakfast, and Erik had been using him as a training model, since before dawn.

    The call to arms came just after breakfast.

    "At least they had the decency to let us fill our bellies first," said Manfred quietly to Erik as they stood in the courtyard, listening to the Abbot, along with all the other men under arms in the Chapter-house.

    "Very considerate. Such reports of raiders always come in at times designed to fit in with normal routine," said Erik sardonically.

    "Hmm. I suppose we'd better offer to ride along," said Manfred, thoughtfully.

    "Breakfast improved your temper, anyway," said Erik. "Volunteering to ride out, yet."

    "Well, it isn't actually raining, at the moiment," said Manfred, looking at the sky. "And it is easier than being used as a demonstration dummy by you."

    But there was absolutely no need for them to volunteer. The Proctor-General of Skåne was generous enough to volunteer them for the mission. "I have requested that the abbot makes a space for you in the troop that rides out," he said. "You will be in no danger, but I wish you to see first-hand what sort of atrocities these pagans practice."

    "They have committed some atrocity?" asked Erik. There had been, well, a note of surprise in the hushed comments among the knights in courtyard. It was late for such raids -- mostly these were aimed at reprovisioning at the enemy's expense. Once the grain had been gathered in, but while cattle were still on the hoof, was the prefered time. It was a lot easier to drive off beef on the hoof, than in a salt-cask. Martinmas slaughterings were well behind them now. Things normally settled down for winter.

    "Atrocities are always comitted," said Proctor-General.

    From what Erik knew of raiders anywhere that was probably true enough. Erik and Manfred mounted up and rode out with the column, with Mecklen and three of his companions unobtrusively behind. Erik noted -- to his surprise, that the Polish Proctor of Instruction, Juzef Szpak, had also ridden along. He found a reason -- a little later, to ask him why.

    Szpak looked faintly embarrassed. "I... told the Abbot that I wanted to go on watching you. He told me it was no longer necessary. So I leaned on one of the young fellows who was among my better -- if more troublesome -- squires last year to feel sick and give up his place to me."

    Erik looked at him with narrowed eyes. "So: your abbot told you it was no longer necessary -- but you decided to go on a long ride in the cold anyway. Why?"

    Szpak looked awkward, and mumbled "Because I don't trust him. The Svear don't raid at this time of year. He handpicked the Knights himself. He doesn't usually do that -- one of the Proctors does. They're a mixture of a few of the worst Prussians and a lot of green youngsters. I owe it to my boys to watch over this lot. There is something going on."

    "I had decided that too," said Erik, grimly.

    But for the rest of that day nothing happened. They spent the night in a heavily fortified border manor, and were in the saddle at first light heading toward a smoke plume. A smoke plume to the Northwest in -- according to their worried host -- a stable area. One where there had not been trouble for over a year. Szpak confirmed this. It was not an area where he'd even been.

    A man on a hard-ridden horse met them en route. It was Ritter Von Naid -- once a confrere with the order himself.

    Raiders had struck one of his estates the previous night.

    "I had a lucky escape," explained Von Naid. "It's a small estate, near the border. I was there yesterday. I had a problem with the accounts and I took my steward and my strong-box back to Narnholm -- my main estate, with several of my servitors from the the border estate to help me guard it. This morning a servant came with the news that the place had been sacked. Several of my people are dead, and goods and livestock have been looted. My men have gone to see if they can find the culprits' trail."

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